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CAMPAIGN '08

Meet the guy next door: Barack Obama

He ditches the jacket, tosses back a Bud, takes a few spins at the roller rink to dispel notions he's elitist.

May 06, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

EVANSVILLE, IND. — Forget the eloquent speeches, the elegant suits and the Ivy League pedigree; Barack Obama is not so different from you, just a regular guy. With an eye to white working-class voters, Obama has recalibrated his image to bat away impressions that he is out of touch, an elitist.

Obama's suit coat is rarely in evidence these days. On a chilly Monday morning in Evansville, he arrived at a construction site in a white shirt and dress pants, though that led to teasing by workers wearing heavy tool belts over how skinny he looked.

In speeches, he puts emphasis on different chapters of his biography: his humble Hawaiian roots and teenage mother.

And he appears more often in front of small groups rather than giant rallies that isolate him from the crowd.

Behind the makeover is a recognition that in a fierce battle for a distinct slice of the Democratic electorate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is winning big. One national poll taken before the Pennsylvania presidential primary last month showed Clinton beating Obama by nearly 40 percentage points among white working-class voters. Clinton argues that her consistent success with these voters makes her more electable in the fall.

Obama's actions haven't always helped the cause. He was recorded telling campaign donors in San Francisco that small-town voters are "bitter" about their economic circumstances and "cling" to guns and religion.

His longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., further complicated matters with his contention after the Sept. 11 attacks that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" and with his theories about U.S. government complicity in the AIDS epidemic.

Now the campaign seems intent on portraying Obama as rather unexceptional. Overlook that he's a Harvard Law School graduate, a U.S. senator from Illinois and the author of two books, and you'll find a husband and father of two.

"We're always refining and perfecting the message," said David Axelrod, the campaign's lead strategist.

The Indiana primary today will test whether the new working-class incarnation pays off, but some supporters in the state prefer the old version.

"You want your president to be elite," said Caleb Warner, 29, who came out to see Obama on Saturday in Noblesville, Ind., drawing on an Indianapolis Colts analogy: "I want Peyton Manning as my quarterback. He's an elite quarterback. I want the best guy for the job."

Obama's campaign has sought out ordinary voters to vouch for him.

The usual practice at rallies is for local politicians to introduce the candidate. Obama is turning to everyday people.

Mike Fisher, a resident of Beech Grove, Ind. (population 14,000), got a call from the Obama campaign last week. He was told that Obama wanted to talk to someone whose job was in jeopardy, said Fisher, who is in danger of losing his position at an Amtrak maintenance facility unless he agrees to a transfer.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, showed up at his door and spoke with the Fisher family for more than an hour. Fisher and his wife laid out a buffet, including cold cuts and fresh fruit.

"When I said we had some food, Sen. Obama said he wasn't bashful and just got right up and fixed himself a plate. Just like a family gathering," Fisher said.

Later, the campaign asked if Fisher would introduce Obama at a stop in Indianapolis. He agreed, and the campaign e-mailed him to suggest talking points.

"He sat down at our kitchen table, put both elbows up on the table and said, 'Let's talk,' " Fisher told the crowd Saturday.

"Barack and Michelle listened and understood and it was like talking to family. It was that easy talking to those two. They're a regular couple. They're regular people."

A folksier, more informal Obama is also often on display.

Last week he stopped at a VFW hall in North Liberty, Ind. (population 1,357). Shirt sleeves rolled up, he ordered a beer. Domestic beer.

"I'm going to have a Bud," he said.

Drinking deeply from the can, Obama took some questions about high gas prices and cast himself as a champion of the working class.

Saturday night, the Obama family popped into roller rink in Lafayette, Ind. As a deejay played the Village People's "YMCA," Obama spelled out the letters with his arms and legs, as any Village People fan would.

While Obama shook hands, his two daughters, ages 6 and 9, skated. Obama later went out and joined them, protectively holding his younger, Sasha, as she struggled to stay upright. A battery of TV cameras captured the father-daughter moment.

New language in Obama's stump speech is meant to reassure voters who may have been put off by Wright and wonder how much of the preacher's philosophy rubbed off.

Obama tells how he was raised by a single mother, how his father left the family when he was only 2.

"You want to understand my patriotism? It's my understanding that only in America is my story possible, Michelle's story possible -- that I owe everything to this country," he said.

--

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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