CAPE GIRARDEAU — Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama stressed his desire to help the middle class during an economic town hall Tuesday in Cape Girardeau — a visit viewed as an attempt to court working-class and swing voters.
The senator from Illinois didn't focus on Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in his remarks, at a time that many political experts say he's the likely Democratic nominee for the presidency. Instead, attendees said he sounded like a man focused on the general election.
Obama spoke for a little more than an hour to a few hundred people gathered around him at the manufacturing plant of Thorngate Ltd., a manufacturer of men's suits. He said Americans are facing higher grocery and gas bills and struggling for health insurance coverage, but aren't seeing increases in their salaries.
Americans often feel that no one is looking out for their best interest, he said. "They don't really have confidence that anyone is listening to them," Obama said.
He pledged to help them achieve their American dream. He said he will establish a program in which Americans could earn a $4,000 tuition credit annually for four years toward higher education, in exchange for completing community service. He said the credits could be used for college or post-high school training.
Obama said he wants to provide universal health care and lower insurance premiums for families. He said that for union workers, this could mean them not having to focus as much on health care during bargaining.
"You'll actually be able to bargain for a better wage once in a while," Obama said.
He was joined by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill who said she wasn't surprised Obama wanted to campaign in an area often considered a Republican stronghold. She said he is not the usual candidate.
"You know, a traditional candidate, they'd say 'Don't campaign in Cape Girardeau, there's too many Republicans,' " she said.
McCaskill, an early Obama supporter, said before Obama's remarks that the candidate is "trying to show his belief that there are no red places or blue places or Democratic states or Republican states, there's just a whole lot of America that wants a different set of priorities in the White House."
"He knows he needs to spend more time in places like Cape Girardeau, Hannibal, Poplar Bluff, Springfield, Columbia, and multiply that by 50," McCaskill said. "He has got to make sure that people outside of Democratic strongholds understand he is somebody who loves his country very much and will fight for the middle class."
Audience members said they liked the plainspoken approach Obama took in his remarks.
Corey Hawkins, 20, a resident of the St. Louis suburb of Normandy, felt Obama's lack of references to Clinton was a show of good manners rather than a strategic move.
"I see it as kind of positive," said Hawkins, who just finished his junior year at Southeast Missouri State University. "He doesn't want to focus on Hillary Clinton because he doesn't want to make it sound like he's already won."
Meanwhile, Missouri Republican leaders Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Missouri Republican Party chair Doug Russell said in a morning phone call with reporters that they don't see Obama as a candidate who offers what southeast Missourians are seeking.
Both Kinder and Emerson made reference, in part, to Obama's remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser in April claiming that small-town residents in places where jobs have been gone for 25 years are bitter and thus cling to guns or religion.
They said gun rights and faith are significant in southeast Missouri, but Kinder said it was not due to bitterness.
"That's just part of the culture, the fabric of our lives," Emerson noted.
Dave Robertson, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Obama can't do anything that would make people forget those comments.
"He can't make it go away, but he can make people care about it less than the economy and Iraq, and that's what he's going to do," he said.
Robertson said visiting Cape Girardeau allowed the candidate a chance to appeal to working-class voters in a sensitive swing state. "It's a very good barometer," he said of Missouri. "It's a good indicator of the country and the way it's leaning."
Obama's visit is part of a tour dominated by swing states, where he hopes to run strong against Republican John McCain once the Democratic race ends. President Bush won Missouri in 2000 and 2004.