Hillary Rodham Clinton spent almost three hours Wednesday trying to persuade a college gym full of Ohioans that her detailed plans to revive the failing economy can also resuscitate her dwindling campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Obviously, the economy is the No. 1 issue in the country, and it's unbelievably important here in Ohio," said Clinton. "I think, absent any intervening circumstances, the economy will be the domestic driver with all the related issues like health care and energy costs and home foreclosures."
The former first lady said voters in key swing states are beginning to focus on "the big questions," such as bedrock economic issues, that she said will drive both the remaining Democratic nomination contests and the fall general election.
"What's important is we have a lot of people yet to vote," said Clinton. "We've got four states coming up on Tuesday, we've got 16 contests after that."
Trailing her rival Barack Obama in popular vote, committed delegates and fundraising, Clinton emphasized the struggling industrial economy throughout the upper Midwest as she swung through Ohio less than a week before its crucial primary. She is counting on her performance in the March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas to keep her candidacy afloat.
In this southeastern Ohio city that's been hammered by plant closings, she held a nearly three-hour round-table on economic issues in the gymnasium of Ohio University-Zanesville and Zane State College. In addition to political heavyweights like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and former Sen. John Glenn who all have endorsed her, Clinton also heard tales of economic stress from workers in excruciating detail that reinforced her reputation as a policy wonk.
Robert Landry, of Dayton, told Clinton about how his home was foreclosed on Christmas Eve and the emotional struggle he faced.
"You feel alone and the bottom drops out of your whole life," said Landry. "The bottom line is you don't know what to do and you're lost."
That underscored a core message of her campaign.
"What are we going to do to improve the lives of hardworking Americans," said Clinton. "That is my mission. I see a middle-class comeback. I see it starting in places like Zanesville."
Reinforcing change and experience
She heard Florine Mark of Weight Watchers tell stories about obese children struggling with self-image, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher talk about state economic development and Christine Pambianchi of Corning Inc. talk about change.
Clinton praised Corning for moving into new product lines like fiber optics. "They used to make glass," she said. "If they were still about glass they wouldn't be around."
Diving into the deep details of a struggling economy was aimed at reinforcing her argument that she's ready to tackle the big problems facing the nation, compared to Obama whom she labels as inexperienced.
"What I intend to do is draw attention, not only to the problem side but the solution side," said Clinton. As the campaign moves to the industrial Midwest, voters are responding, she said.
"What I feel is happening is people are starting toward the big questions they should have to answer, who can be the best commander in chief, who do you want in the White House answering the phone at 3 a.m.," said Clinton. "I feel good about these upcoming states. What keeps me optimistic is the success I've had so far and what I think the prospects are for Tuesday."
She emphasized the value of patience and experience.
"Change does take consistent, concerted effort," said Clinton. "The people of Ohio are ready. We just need to stay with you."