Hillary Rodham Clinton declared herself the candidate of middle class Americans as she struggled to hold off a hard-charging Barack Obama in upcoming Democratic contests in the industrial heartland that could determine the fate of her presidential campaign.
But it was Obama who collected a key labor union endorsement on Friday, at the same time he criticised his rival for supporting legislation harmful to workers such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In the Republican race, John McCain, the party’s presumptive nominee, was to receive an endorsement from former President George HW Bush on Monday, Republican officials said. The officials spoke on Friday on condition of anonymity because the formal announcement is next week.
The former president’s endorsement, which follows one from ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is a further nudge by Republican chieftains for conservative activists to get over their distaste for McCain, and for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to quit the race.
Since he took a commanding lead in the delegate count, McCain has been working to solidify his support from a Republican base unhappy with his unorthodox positions on some tax cuts, immigration, campaign finance laws, global warming, stem cell research and more.
On Thursday, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney asked his national convention delegates to swing behind the veteran Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner-of-war. The additional delegates, assuming they all choose to back McCain, would put him just 63 shy of the 1,191 needed to clinch the party’s nomination at this summer’s convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Clinton has relied on working-class Democrats for much of her support in six weeks of presidential primary contests across the country and is counting on them to pull her through upcoming high-stakes primaries in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Ohio and Texas on March 4, and Pennsylvania on April 22.
The former first lady is running a three-pronged strategy: She is honing a tough new populist message, she is sharpening her criticism of Obama and she is presenting herself as the candidate who is better schooled in the intricacies of government policy.
Clinton declared herself the “candidate of, from and for the middle class of America” as she discussed a variety of economic issues during a round-table discussion in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The New York senator then left her audience with what is becoming her standard anti-Obama line.
“This primary election offers a very big choice to the voters of Ohio,” she said. “You can choose speeches or solutions.”
At a stop in northern Ohio, Clinton heaped praise and criticism on her opponents. She said Obama has run an “extraordinary campaign,” and called Vietnam War veteran McCain “a man of great heroism.” But she said McCain represents “more of the same” in Iraq, and she cast Obama as an obstacle to universal health care.
She has even altered Obama’s signature chant of hope – “Yes we can!” – into one of determination – “Yes we will!”
Obama challenged Clinton’s credentials as a champion of working-class Americans as he traveled across Wisconsin, hoping to add the state to an impressive string of victories since he gained a split decision with Clinton in the 22 contests on February 5, Super Tuesday.
“Her supporting NAFTA didn’t give jobs to the American people,” Obama said of the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico implemented while Bill Clinton was in the White House. “Her supporting a bankruptcy bill made it harder for people to get out of debt that didn’t help them with the bills that were stacking up on their desks.”
Obama, who has relied on a coalition of African-American voters and well-educated upscale Democrats, has recently been winning key labor endorsements that could cut into Clinton’s base of core supporters.
On Friday, the Illinois senator was endorsed by the Service Employees International Union, a powerful political force with 1.9 million members, one day after he collected the support of the 1.3-million member United Food and Commercial Workers. Obama hopes the endorsements give him an organizational boost in upcoming contests in states with large numbers of working-class voters.
Obama’s advisers say even though some of his supporters assume she is on the verge of collapse, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Clintons. They have proven their ability again and again to make a comeback when they were at their lowest.
Clinton has suffered a spate of crippling developments – eight straight losses, campaign finance problems, a shake-up of her staff – but recent polls give her fresh reason to hope for a comeback that will put a brake on Obama’s gathering momentum.
A poll of Wisconsin voters released Friday found Obama narrowly leading Clinton by 46 per cent to 42 per cent, with a margin of error of five percentage points. Recent polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania show Clinton with a more than 15-percentage point advantage.
Obama now leads the chase for nomination delegates 1,280-1,218. It takes 2,025 delegates to secure the presidential nomination at the party’s convention this summer in Denver.
Clinton endured a blow on Thursday when one of her superdelegates – congressional leaders who are free to decide for whom they will vote – abandoned her for Obama.
Rep David Scott’s defection and remarks by Rep John Lewis, a prominent lawmaker and civil rights leader, highlight the difficulty Clinton faces in a campaign that pits a black man against a woman for a historic nomination. Lewis, whose Atlanta-area district voted 3-to-1 for Obama, has said that he is leaning toward abandoning Clinton for Obama.
Meanwhile, in Obama’s native state of Hawaii, neither Clinton or Obama made it to the far-away state ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic caucuses there. But both were represented by family.
Clinton dispatched daughter Chelsea. “To see a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling is really inspiring to me,” Chelsea Clinton told about 150 people at the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus on Friday.
If Clinton won, she would be the country’s first woman president; Obama would be America’s first black president.
Obama’s half-sister, Honolulu school teacher Maya Soetoro-Ng, spoke to about 100 people at the University of Hawaii Manoa campus Friday night. “You might ask, ‘Should we be loyal to Barack Obama simply because he’s a local boy?’” she told the crowd, which broke out into laughter when someone said, “Yes.”
“You might say yes. I wouldn’t argue with you,” she said. (AP)
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