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After Debate, Glare Of Media Hits Joe

The day after the presidential nominees' last debate, Joe Wurzelbacher greets members of the media at his home in Holland, Ohio.
The day after the presidential nominees' last debate, Joe Wurzelbacher greets members of the media at his home in Holland, Ohio. (By J.d. Pooley -- Getty Images)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

"The real winner" of Wednesday night's debate, John McCain said yesterday at a campaign stop in Downingtown, Pa., "was Joe the Plumber."

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That might depend on the definition of "winner."

Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio, is suddenly (sort of) a household name, featured in a McCain ad and sought after by networks news anchors and newspaper reporters. McCain would like to meet him in person this weekend, but Wurzelbacher's got a date on Mike Huckabee's Fox News show and might not have the time.

But the emergence of Joe has allowed the state of Ohio to locate the man it says owes nearly $1,200 in back taxes. His motives for confronting Sen. Barack Obama at a campaign stop in his neighborhood earlier this week are the subject of intense Internet speculation. The city of Toledo is preparing a letter to his employer seeking to determine whether he is violating city codes, and the plumbers union is on his tail.

"Joe the Plumber really isn't a plumber," said Thomas Joseph, business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, whose national membership has endorsed Obama.

Wurzelbacher, 34, had already taken tentative steps onto the national stage after talking to Obama on Sunday as the Democrat toured his suburban neighborhood outside Toledo. Wurzelbacher told Obama that he wants to buy the plumbing company he works for, and that his potential income of more than $250,000 would make him eligible for increased taxes under Obama's proposals.

"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" Wurzelbacher asked.

Obama's answer to that and a question about the flat tax -- that Obama thought it better to "spread the wealth around" -- captured the attention of conservative media and the McCain campaign.

"Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day," McCain told Obama at the start of Wednesday night's debate. "And he wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes," deferring what McCain called "the American dream."

Joe the Plumber quickly became a metaphor for the middle class, and between them, McCain and Obama mentioned him more than two dozen times.

The result was an avalanche of attention: "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric on the phone, "Good Morning America" awaiting an interview, reporters in the driveway of his modest home.

"I'm completely flabbergasted with this whole thing," he told reporters. He did not return a phone call from The Washington Post.


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