For McCain: Different Place, Same Message

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain visited Inez, Kentucky Wednesday. The visit by McCain comes on the heels of new polling data that shows American voters have become more concerned about the economy than the war in Iraq. Video by AP
By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 24, 2008

INEZ, Ky., April 23 -- Sen. John McCain stood before a small crowd in this tiny Appalachian town with the same mission he has had all week: convincing what he calls "forgotten" voters who are traditionally hostile to his party that he is a different kind of Republican.

"You just expect us to show a decent concern for your hard work and initiative, and do what we can to help make sure you have opportunities to prosper from your labor," he told a packed courthouse Wednesday, not far from the coal mines that provide most of the jobs here.

Earlier this week, McCain sought to assure African Americans in Selma, Ala., that he is committed to helping places ignored by "sins of indifference and injustice." On Tuesday, he sympathized with workers in the fading factory town of Youngstown, Ohio. And on Thursday, he is scheduled to tour the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where residents continue to struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

McCain is reaching out to voters in these Democratic strongholds to try to build the broad, center-right coalition that aides believe is necessary for him to become president. Advisers do not think Republicans alone can elect McCain, given how many have become disenchanted with President Bush and his policies.

McCain's "Time for Action" tour is less about specific proposals; those will come later, advisers said. The important part, they said, is for McCain to lay the groundwork in places such as Inez to credibly claim that he cares about the people who live on the edge of the modern economy. In effect, McCain is launching Version 2.0 of Bush's "compassionate conservative" campaign.

McCain is not likely to have an easy time of it. Appealing to blacks and rural Democrats may be difficult as job losses and gas prices have made the economy the leading issue on voters' minds. McCain's economic plan is heavy on tax breaks for big business and admonishments about not relying on the federal government for help. He proposes a cut in corporate income taxes from 35 to 25 percent, help for companies who depreciate equipment and other incentives.

"The Democrats do more for our area," said Rhonda York, who works for a day-care provider and is married to a coal miner. "Right now, it's extremely hard, with four dollars for gas."

In his speech Wednesday, McCain offered none of the promises of government help that President Lyndon Johnson did when he declared war on poverty in Inez 44 years ago. Instead, McCain vowed to enact tax cuts that he said will spur job growth, incentives for companies to bring high-speed Internet here, and job training for displaced workers.

"Government can't create good and lasting jobs outside of government," he told the crowd. "It can't pay lost wages. It can't dig coal from the earth. It can't buy you a house or send all your kids to college. It can't do your work for you. And you've never asked it to."

In courting union members and Democratic steelworkers in Youngstown, McCain said, "You know how it feels to hear that good things are happening in the American economy; they're just not happening to you."

Nowhere is that clearer than in the region around Inez, a town of 650 in the middle of a mountain pass whose Main Street stretches a few blocks. According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the median household income in surrounding Martin County is $22,368 and 42.2 percent of residents live in poverty, compared with a national household income of $46,242 and 13.3 percent poverty rate.

The house that Johnson visited four decades ago still stands a few miles outside town, with a corrugated tin roof and skinny wood beams. But that sort of building is the exception now. Martin County Judge Executive Kelly Callaham complained that when reporters visit, "They go to where the chickens are on the porches, and they don't go up to the nice places."

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