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CAMPAIGN '08: THE DEMOCRATS

Obama, Biden visit Rust Belt

Starting in Pennsylvania, the Democrats take their message to a region hit hard economically.

August 30, 2008|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

BEAVER, PA. — Barack Obama and Joe Biden left the glitz of the Democratic Party convention in Denver for the shuttered mills of the Rust Belt on Friday, kicking off a campaign swing that will take them through Pennsylvania and several Midwest battleground states.

The trip, the first that the two have taken together since Biden joined the ticket last week, brought the candidates to a region deemed crucial to Democratic hopes of taking the White House in November.

And it underscored the Obama campaign's imperative to shore up support in traditional Democratic strongholds, even as the Illinois senator competes for red states in the South and Rocky Mountain West.

On Friday -- with most of the political world focused on Republican John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate -- Obama, Biden and their wives crisscrossed the Pittsburgh area and focused on the economic pain of places like western Pennsylvania.

"The American people are hurting," Obama told thousands of people gathered on a muggy Friday night in a park in downtown Beaver, an aging industrial town northwest of Pittsburgh.

"Everywhere you go, people are working harder for less," Obama said. "They see their jobs shipped overseas. They've seen the cost of everything from healthcare to college to gas to food skyrocket -- even though their incomes and their wages haven't gone up."

Democrats have won Pennsylvania and Michigan in the last four presidential elections. But narrow defeats in Ohio cost the party the presidential election in 2000 and 2004.

During this year's primaries, Obama -- who was caught on tape discussing "bitter" Pennsylvania voters at a San Francisco Bay Area fundraiser -- struggled in the region, losing the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries to Hillary Rodham Clinton by wide margins.

Obama has been laboring to connect with white working-class voters ever since.

He did not compete in Michigan after that state's decision to defy the national party by moving up the date of its primary.

Some of Obama's biggest election challenges may come in places like Beaver County, an aging corner of steel country decimated by closing mills and the exodus of generations of people looking for economic opportunity elsewhere.

Two years ago, voters in the stilled towns and narrow valleys around Pittsburgh gave Democrats a surprise victory as political newcomer Jason Altmire knocked out the incumbent Republican congresswoman.

But Obama was crushed in Beaver County in the April Democratic primary, winning 30% of the vote to Clinton's 70%. He did little better in other counties along the Ohio border.

A day after the convention, Obama took his motorcade back to the Ohio River valley, past the mammoth skeletons of former steel mills to a park in downtown Beaver.

He and Biden were introduced by union leaders Friday night. Standing in his shirt-sleeves under a gazebo decked out with red, white and blue bunting, the Democratic presidential nominee hammered away at his Republican rival.

"John McCain just does not get what ordinary people here in Beaver, Pa., are going through," Obama said, delivering a message that he has made increasingly central to his campaign.

He referred repeatedly to the struggles he said he had seen on the campaign trail over the last year and a half.

"The thing that concerns people the most," he told the crowd, "is not just what it means for them, but what it means to their children or their grandchildren.

"They start wondering . . . 'Is their life going to be as good as mine was? Are they going to be able to work hard and raise a family, buy their own home and take a vacation once in a while, have healthcare and retire with dignity and some respect? Are they going to be able to live out the American dream?' "

He closed with a message tailored to regions hit hard by a changing economy.

"You know that if we keep going the way we're going," Obama said, "a whole lot of young people growing up in Beaver . . . are going to decide that they can't make a living and they don't have a future here."

Today, the campaign is scheduled to visit Ohio, stopping in Cleveland for the funeral of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a pathbreaking black Democrat who died Aug. 20.

In the week ahead, the trip will include stops in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

--

noam.levey@latimes.com

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