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Originally published February 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 19, 2008 at 7:16 PM

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Election 2008

Democrats focus on economy

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama intensified their populist appeals Monday, responding to widespread economic anxiety and pushing...

WAUSAU, Wis. — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama intensified their populist appeals Monday, responding to widespread economic anxiety and pushing the Democratic Party further from the business-friendly posture once championed by President Clinton.

Both presidential candidates tailored their messages to tie into the anxious mood on the eve of the Wisconsin and Washington primaries — and caucuses in Hawaii — but looked toward upcoming primaries in economically squeezed Ohio and Texas on March 4.

Clinton talked up her solutions to the nation's economic ills Monday in stops in Wisconsin even as Obama was doing the same in Youngstown, Ohio, serving up his own fiery economic pitch.

As the candidates press for the same base of voters, they have tangled more and more over their stances on international trade agreements, mortgage foreclosures and economic dislocation.

Both Clinton and Obama presented themselves as populists in the tradition of former rival John Edwards, whose support — and whose voters — both covet.

Clinton's campaign issued a 12-page compendium of her economic policies Monday that emphasized programs aiding families stressed by high oil prices, home foreclosures, costly student loans and soaring health-care premiums.

Obama's backers distributed copies of his 46-page economic plan, first released last week. The candidate told a Youngstown State University audience that, if he were president, he would try to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and adjust U.S. trade policy with China in ways that strengthened the other nations' labor, environmental and safety standards. He also pledged to prod U.S. companies to keep jobs from going abroad.

War takes a back seat

The two candidates' tone was driven, in part, by the prospect of a recession, which, in recent weeks, has 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 Obama and Clinton because it is experiencing many of the troubles afflicting the economy overall.

An Obama victory in Wisconsin would continue the winning streak he started two weeks ago. Since Super Tuesday, on Feb. 5, he has swept all eight primaries and caucuses.

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 Obama in Ohio.

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Polls have shown Obama with a small lead in Wisconsin. The Clinton campaign has indicated it would be satisfied with staying competitive in the delegate count with hopes of an upset in Obama's neighboring state.

Both candidates are maneuvering to win Edwards' endorsement and adjusting their public statements to appeal to his slice of the electorate, including union members.

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

Bona fides questioned

Economic populism was a key plank of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential win, stamped in the reminder that was always on display in the candidate's Little Rock war room: "It's the economy, stupid."

As Hillary Clinton has sought to portray herself as a middle-class champion, Obama has horned into the action. Obama has questioned his rival's bona fides and raised questions about her husband's backing of NAFTA, a sore point among unions and factory workers in Ohio who are convinced the pact with Mexico has been a major factor in the loss of auto and other manufacturing plants from the state.

NAFTA positions similar

The two campaigns have traded attacks over NAFTA in media ads and campaign mailers. Playing on Clinton's criticisms that she provided "solutions" while Obama made speeches, the Illinois senator said Monday that "speeches don't put food on the table. But you know what? NAFTA didn't put food on the table."

Clinton and Obama have basically identical positions on NAFTA. Both call for the agreement to be rewritten to include labor and environmental safeguards. But the law was enacted during President Clinton's first term, and Obama is eager to call attention to that.

Ever since President Clinton's election in 1992, the Democratic Party has been divided over how to balance economic policy between initiatives to promote economic growth and those intended to help workers.

Taking lobbyists' money

In her campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton has consistently focused on issues such as income inequality, 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 also has sought, often successfully, to win support and campaign contributions from an array of business leaders, including John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley and one of the Republican Party's biggest fundraisers. 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."

Obama has laid out an economic agenda that is broadly similar to 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 past week, though, facing tough battles in the Midwest, Obama has been emphasizing the economic upheaval that trade deals have brought to communities in Wisconsin and Ohio.

"In the last year alone," 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 story was compiled from The New York Times, McClatchy News Service, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune reports.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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