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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Rivals take aim with sharpened messages

Obama, in the battleground state of Indiana, retools a theme of 'better days' amid financial gloom.

October 09, 2008|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — For nearly two years, Barack Obama has made hope a chief selling point of his campaign for president. Now, unpredictably, national despair over the foundering economy has given new resonance to his message.

The Democratic nominee unveiled a sharpened theme Wednesday, evoking the nation's recovery from the Depression to suggest he offers America its best chance to overcome the economic crisis that has erupted worldwide.

"Listen here, Indiana," Obama told 20,000 supporters at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. "I'm here today to tell you that there are better days ahead."

The tumultuous economy, he told the crowd, is testing America "in a way that we haven't seen in nearly a century."

"Future generations will judge us by how we respond to this test," he said. "Will they say that this was a time when America lost its way, when it lost its purpose? When we allowed our own petty differences, our broken politics to plunge this country into a dark and painful recession?

"Or will they say that this was another one of those moments when America overcame? When we battled back from adversity, when we recognized the common stake we have in each other's success? This is one of those moments, Indiana."

Since the start of his campaign, the Illinois senator has talked relentlessly of tax cuts and other relief for families hamstrung by the rising costs of gasoline, healthcare and college. But the message, absent a real-world sense of immediacy, never completely clicked.

Now, with job losses and home foreclosures mounting, with voters aghast at the colossal taxpayer bailout of Wall Street giants and tumbling stock prices that have diminished their retirement savings, it is all too immediate.

Obama's recasting of his rhetoric on the economy combines a sober assessment of the tasks ahead, ones unimaginable when his campaign began, with the brand of optimism that fueled his candidacy from the start.

Not incidentally, it echoed the tough-minded optimism employed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Both used a gift for pairing optimism and empathy to great success in their election campaigns.

On Wednesday, Obama wryly invoked Reagan at the fairgrounds.

"Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the electorate whether you were better off than you were four years ago," he told supporters. "At the pace things are going right now, you're going to have to ask whether you're better off than you were four weeks ago."

The fact that Obama was even stopping in Indiana less than four weeks before the election attested to the gains he has made as economic turmoil has come to dominate the White House contest.

It has been 44 years since Indiana voted to put a Democrat in the White House. But polls show it is one of a rising number of Republican-leaning states up for grabs. Also on the list are North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia -- all states where deep dissatisfaction with the country's direction, especially on the economy, has hampered Republicans.

"I never thought I'd see the day when Indiana would be in play in a presidential election," said Brian Crist, 37, an Indianapolis real estate lawyer and Democrat who held his 5-year-old daughter, Kate, in his arms at the muddy fairgrounds. "I took my daughter out of school, because I thought this was really important to see."

Even with a more forceful emphasis on the economic realities, Obama has been vague about what lies ahead. At the fairgrounds, Obama called for shared sacrifice, saying a recovery would require all Americans to "pull our weight." Left unanswered was whether that suggested a reassessment of his agenda.

"We're going to have to regain our nerve, our vision, our courage, because now more than ever, we're all in this together," he said.

Describing his plans to cut taxes and expand health coverage, he called for spurring the economy for "not just the person who owns the factory, but the men and women who work on the factory floor."

"Because if we've learned anything from this economic crisis, it's that we're all connected, we're all in this together," he said.

"That's right!" a woman shouted at the stage.

Obama's speech came a day after his second debate with Republican rival John McCain. While McCain spent much of Wednesday criticizing Obama, the Democrat spent less time focusing on McCain. Sometimes he was elliptical:

"I know these times are tough, and I know that many of you are anxious about the future," Obama said. "But this isn't the time for fear or for panic. This is time for resolve and steady leadership."

Left unspoken was the contrast between "steady" and "erratic," the Obama campaign's word of choice to describe McCain's response to the Wall Street meltdown. (Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, did speak harshly of McCain while campaigning in Florida, calling him "an angry man, lurching from one position to another," according to the Associated Press.)

If Obama averted the kind of slashing character assaults that McCain's campaign has directed his way this week, he did ridicule McCain and the Bush administration on policy matters.

"We can't afford four more years of no regulation on Wall Street, when Washington isn't paying attention, and CEOs are getting golden parachutes and multimillion-dollar bonuses, while their workers are suffering and their investors are getting the shaft," Obama said.

"We've seen enough of where that leads us."

"Enough!" the crowd hollered from a steep bank of bleachers, picking up a chant. "Enough!"

--

michael.finnegan @latimes.com

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