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Democratic Candidates Begin Touring Rust Belt

Campaign Caught Off Guard by McCain's Pick

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 29 -- Democratic running mates Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. embarked on a Rust Belt bus tour Friday that aimed to capitalize on a convention that appeared to ease party tensions and ended with Obama's historic and widely acclaimed acceptance speech before a record national audience.

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But some of the Democrats' momentum quickly disappeared Friday morning, when the campaign was caught off guard by the announcement of presumptive GOP nominee John McCain that he had selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Campaign officials searched the Internet and debriefed Alaska Democrats to learn more about their new foe, while a spokesman released a harsh statement about Palin that Obama later backed away from. The Obama campaign, like most political observers, had expected McCain to select a more traditional running mate, such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"I haven't met her before," Obama told reporters at a biodiesel plant in Monaca, Pa. Nor had Biden, who will debate Palin in St. Louis on Oct. 8. Later Friday afternoon, Obama spoke to Palin by telephone and wished her luck -- though not too much luck -- in the race. Biden also called Palin, and the two shared tales of the lengthy and secretive processes that led to their selections, aides to Biden said.

Obama described Palin as "a compelling person . . . with a terrific personal story. I'm sure that she will help make the case for Republicans." But, he added, hitting on a theme from his convention speech, "Ultimately, John McCain is at the top of the ticket. He wants to take the country in the wrong direction. I'm assuming Governor Palin agrees with him and his policies."

The Democratic team will spend Labor Day weekend on a caravan through the critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, where the candidates will court working-class voters, whom Obama has struggled to attract. Biden, a native of Scranton, Pa., with a lunch-pail pedigree, is expected to bolster Obama's credentials among this critical demographic, as well as with senior citizens.

Biden, who is more easygoing and conversational than Obama on the campaign trail, showed the levity he will bring to the ticket when the pair arrived at a Pittsburgh hotel to tape a "60 Minutes" interview Friday evening and were greeted by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "Hey, Coach, I'm Joe Biden. I'm second-string," the vice presidential candidate quipped.

The pair held their first joint rally Friday night in Beaver, Pa., drawing about 8,000 people to a downtown park. Biden and Obama were introduced by Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, who offered a forceful testimonial aimed at his blue-collar members. "They know what it's like to struggle," Gerard said. "They're going to be there for us."

When Biden took the stage, he told Obama's family story, extolling the work ethic and perseverance of his single mother and grandparents, who helped to raise him. "I think you just figured out why I chose Joe Biden," Obama said when it was his turn. "Because here's a man who wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth."

On Saturday, Obama and Biden will attend the funeral of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who died Aug. 20. The senators will make stops in Dublin and Toledo, Ohio, and in Battle Creek, Mich. On Labor Day, Obama will march in a Detroit parade with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, before speaking to an audience of union organizers who plan to mobilize for the Democrat.

Obama's acceptance speech at Denver's Invesco Field on Thursday night drew more than 38 million viewers, more than the opening ceremony of the Olympics and the most ever for a convention address.

The speech included policy proposals aimed at lowering living costs and creating jobs for those struggling in the nation's troubled economy. The convention also appeared to achieve the goal of pulling the party together, after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Bill Clinton made forceful appeals on Obama's behalf. By Thursday night, tensions with the Clintons appeared to have been largely defused.

Nonetheless, McCain and Palin made a direct appeal to supporters of Hillary Clinton on Friday, hoping to tap into lingering discontent with Obama among women voters. Mindful of this threat, Obama acknowledged Palin's ascent as the first woman named to a Republican presidential ticket, calling it "one more indicator of this country moving forward . . . one more hit against that glass ceiling."

An initial campaign statement was less gracious. Obama spokesman Bill Burton ridiculed her résumé -- echoing the main argument McCain has directed at Obama. Palin is in her first term as Alaska governor after serving as a council member and mayor of the small town of Wasilla. "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," Burton said in the statement.

Republicans jumped on Burton's words as overly harsh, and the campaign soon produced a new statement credited to Obama and Biden. At the biodiesel plant, Obama called his campaign's initial reaction a "hair-trigger" response, and said the latter statement by the two candidates was the one that "reflects our sentiments."



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