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Democratic hopefuls make populist appeals

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama intensified their populist appeals during campaign speeches ahead of Tuesday's Wisconsin primary.
Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton campaigns in Madison, Wis., on Monday.Allen Fredrickson / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama intensified their populist appeals on Monday, responding to widespread economic anxiety and pushing the Democratic Party further from the business-friendly posture once championed by Bill Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking on the eve of the Wisconsin primary but looking forward to primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4, issued a 12-page compendium of her economic policies that emphasizes programs aiding families stressed by high oil prices, home foreclosures, costly student loans and soaring health care premiums.

In public appearances here and in her economic booklet, she took aim at hedge fund managers, oil company profits, drug company subsidies and trade agreements that she says encourage companies to export jobs.

Mrs. Clinton told an audience that the Wisconsin primary and subsequent contests were “a chance for all of you here to help take our country back.”

“We need tax breaks for the middle class, not for the wealthy and the well-connected,” she said Monday morning at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. “We’re going to rein in the special interests and get the $55 billion in giveaways and subsidies they’ve gotten under Republicans back into your pockets.”

Mrs. Clinton referred to the “two oilmen in the White House” and repeated her call for a windfall-profits tax on the oil industry to finance a $50 billion program to develop alternate energy sources and create “green jobs.”

Jobs on the minds of voters
Campaigning in Ohio before flying to Wisconsin for an election-eve rally, Mr. Obama said the wealthy had “made out like bandits” under the Bush administration and called for an end to tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas.

“In the last year alone,” Mr. Obama said, “93 plants have closed in this state. And yet, year after year, politicians in Washington sign trade agreements that are riddled with perks for big corporations but have absolutely no protections for American workers. It’s bad for our economy; it’s bad for our country.”

The two candidates’ tone was driven in part by the prospect of a recession, which has in recent weeks shifted the focus of the presidential contest from war and terrorism to concerns much closer to home: jobs, foreclosures, energy and health care costs.

It also reflected the dynamics and calendar of the Democratic race over the next two weeks. Ohio looms particularly large for both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton because it is experiencing many of the troubles afflicting the economy over all.

Fighting for blue-collar support
Mrs. Clinton is fighting to hold on to the lower- and middle-income voters and those with a high school education or less, who formed the core of her support in earlier contests but who began to drift away last week in primaries in Virginia and Maryland. This effort is vital to her success against Mr. Obama in Ohio.

Both are maneuvering to win the endorsement of John Edwards, who dropped out of the presidential race late last month after running on an explicitly populist message. And both are adjusting their public statements to appeal to his slice of the electorate, including union members.

Associates of Mr. Edwards said it remained an open question whether he would declare his support for one of his former rivals. Mrs. Clinton met with Mr. Edwards earlier this month, and Mr. Obama met with him Sunday.

“I think he has a lot of credibility,” Mr. Obama said Monday, “and so we would love to have his support.”

Balancing act
Ever since Mr. Clinton’s election as president in 1992, the Democratic Party has been divided over how to balance economic policy between initiatives intended to promote economic growth and those intended to help workers. Mr. Clinton entered the White House as a supporter of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s stance that the party could not be antibusiness, and his signature economic policies were deficit reduction, trade expansion, tax credits to promote work and tighter restrictions on welfare.

But the ups and downs of the economy since then and two terms of President Bush’s policies have shifted the center of gravity within the party. Mrs. Clinton has consistently focused on issues like income inequality in her presidential campaign, has proposed steps to help homeowners hurt by the turmoil in the mortgage markets and has called for a timeout in negotiating new trade deals.

But she has also sought, often successfully, to win support and campaign contributions from an array of business leaders, including John J. Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley and one of the Republican Party’s biggest fund-raisers. And she infuriated many liberals last year when she told an audience at the Yearly Kos convention of bloggers that she would continue to take contributions from lobbyists because they “represent real Americans.”

Emphasis on trade deals
Mr. Obama has laid out an economic agenda that is broadly similar to Mrs. Clinton’s. But until recently, he was the target of criticism from some liberals for not being more outspoken about what they see as the deficiencies in the nation’s trade policies. For the last week, though, facing tough battles in the Midwest, Mr. Obama has been emphasizing the economic upheaval that trade deals have brought to communities in Wisconsin and Ohio, and he has sought in particular to put Mrs. Clinton on the defensive over Nafta, the North American trade pact signed into law by Mr. Clinton.

Still, both candidates appear to be looking for ways to avoid taking positions that would give them problems in the general election or expose them to a business backlash.

Before leaving Ohio, Mr. Obama met with workers at a titanium plant near Youngstown, where he renewed his call for corporations to be “patriot employers,” creating good jobs with full benefits for American workers.

“Revolutions in communication and technology have made it easier for companies to send jobs wherever labor is cheapest, and that’s something that cannot be reversed,” Mr. Obama said. “So I’m not going to stand here and say that we can stop every job from going overseas. I don’t believe that we can — or should — stop free trade.”

‘Tired of being played for a patsy’
Mrs. Clinton has been critical in her presidential campaign of the way Nafta was carried out, and she has called for an overhaul of the program that helps workers who lose their jobs due to trade and for an end to any tax incentives for companies that move jobs abroad.

At an event Monday at a union hall in Wausau, Mrs. Clinton said that other countries had taken advantage of the Bush administration’s pro-trade policies.

“I’m tired of being played for a patsy,” Mrs. Clinton said at the hall. “We have the largest market in the world. It’s time we said to the rest of the world, ‘If you want to have anything to do with our market, you have to play by our rules.’ ”

Mrs. Clinton also pushed her people-versus-the-powerful message in television advertisements over the weekend in Wisconsin. “The oil companies, the drug companies have had seven years of a president who stands up for them,” she says, looking into the camera. “It’s time we had a president who stands up for all of you.”

At rallies and in door-to-door campaigning in Ohio, Mr. Obama distributed a soft-cover book, “Keeping America’s Promise,” outlining details of his proposals to provide relief to families hit by the housing crisis, high energy prices and declining wages.

He delivered a blistering critique of corporations that he said had benefited to the detriment of working families across the United States over the last seven years.

“We now have greater income inequality than any time since the Great Depression,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters after touring the titanium plant. “For us to want to reverse that so everyone has a stake in the economy, I think is just common sense and good for everybody, including business.”

A crowd of more than 6,000 people in Youngstown cheered wildly when Mr. Obama responded to criticism from Mrs. Clinton that he delivers speeches, not solutions.

“One thing I do have to say about Senator Clinton — she says speeches don’t put food on the table,” Mr. Obama said. “Well, you know what? Nafta didn’t put food on the table either.”