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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Move over, Britney

The suddenly famous man known as Joe the Plumber is learning that celebrity comes with a price.

October 17, 2008|Robin Abcarian and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

Can John McCain catch a break?

In a bid to sway voters who have doubted his ability to shepherd the economy, McCain plucked Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher out of obscurity during the final presidential debate Wednesday and assured him of an asterisk in the history of the 2008 presidential campaign.

"Joe the Plumber," said McCain, was just the kind of guy Barack Obama's tax plans would hurt and just the kind of guy his plan would help.

Turns out that is not the case. Joe the Plumber would be one of the American workers Obama says would get a tax cut under his plan. Also, Wurzelbacher is not licensed as a plumber, and the plumbers union is mad at him.

Fame comes with a price. In Wurzelbacher's case, it's about $1,182, the amount of the lien the state of Ohio has placed on his property for personal income taxes he owes.

Also, now that he's famous, he's busy. When the McCain campaign invited Wurzelbacher to attend a rally Sunday in Toledo with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, he told them that he probably couldn't make it. He'd made plans to be in New York. He'll be doing TV interviews.

McCain remains hopeful, though.

"I'm probably going to call him this morning," McCain told Fox News on Thursday. "I thought he would probably be up late. I heard that his phone lines were pretty well flooded. But I think we're going to be spending some time together."

Wurzelbacher, a 34-year-old single father of a 13-year-old boy, has been besieged by reporters since Wednesday night. They called every Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio (listings are surprisingly numerous), camped out overnight at his house and pestered his neighbors.

Thursday, after a morning workout and a chat with reporters in his driveway, he split his time among Diane Sawyer and other national media figures. He'd already been interviewed by Katie Couric on debate night.

"I'm kind of like Britney Spears having a headache," Wurzelbacher told the journalists at his house. "Everybody wants to know about it."

He said he was surprised to hear his name mentioned so many times during the debate. "That bothered me," he said. "I wished that they had talked more about issues that are important to Americans."

Leaning against the Dodge Durango SUV parked in his driveway, Wurzelbacher said he was a conservative who would be honored to meet McCain. He acknowledged that under Obama's plan, his taxes would be cut. "But I don't look at it that way. He'd still be hurting others," he said.

Wurzelbacher also divulged that the McCain campaign had contacted him several days before the debate and asked him to appear at the Toledo rally. A campaign aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Wurzelbacher had been invited.

The aide said the campaign did not vet Wurzelbacher and didn't see the need. "We did not look into his background, because millions of Americans will see a tax increase under Barack Obama, and we do not have time or interest in vetting all of them," the aide said.

The saga of Joe the Plumber began Sunday, when Obama campaigned on Shrewsbury Street in Holland, Ohio. One of the voters he encountered was Wurzelbacher, who said he was about to buy a plumbing business worth $250,000 to $280,000 a year.

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

Obama replied that his plan would raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," said Obama.

During Wednesday's debate, McCain first mentioned the plumber, whose name then came up 25 more times in 90 minutes. At one point, McCain looked directly into the camera and made this promise: "Joe, I want to tell you, I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for. . . . I'll keep your taxes low and I'll provide available and affordable healthcare for you and your employees."

At a rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Thursday, Obama said McCain was disingenuous to suggest his tax policies would help people like Wurzelbacher. McCain, he said, "is trying to suggest a plumber is the guy he's fighting for. How many plumbers you know making a quarter-million dollars a year?"

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said it was "an outrage" that the media were "attacking" Wurzelbacher, and accused the Obama campaign of being involved. "Instead of answering tough questions, his campaign attacks average Americans for daring to look at the reality behind his words," Bounds said.

Wurzelbacher told reporters that he was hoping to buy the business he works for, Newell Plumbing & Heating in nearby Toledo. He said he had worked for the two-man shop six years and had discussed taking it over from his boss, Al Newell.

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