McCain Takes Message to Poor, Democratic Areas
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain spent much of this week traveling the back roads of American politics. The Arizona senator visited communities that have been left behind economically and that are often overlooked by his Republican Party. It was a chance for McCain to show his concern for the working poor, even as he promised little in the way of direct government help.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: The McCain campaign billed this week as its Time for Action tour. But from its very first day in Selma, Alabama, McCain made it clear he wasn't talking primarily about action by the federal government.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I'm not going to tell anybody about how government can make their choices for them, but how we can help grow our economy so that people have better choices to make for themselves.
HORSLEY: Later, in Martin County, Kentucky, where in 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty, McCain dismissed that kind of ambitious government activism. Government can't create good and lasting jobs, he said. It can't buy you a house. He did offer some support for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, but for the most part, McCain stressed a conservative platform of low taxes and reduced government spending.
He says that will help foster new jobs and new industries, where the U.S. is most competitive.
Sen. MCCAIN: Today, for example, 1.3 million people in the world make a living off eBay. Most of those are in the United States of America.
HORSLEY: In Youngstown, Ohio, where the unemployment rate is more than seven and a half percent, McCain conceded those new industries are a long way from replacing shuttered steel mills. But, he says, with improved training for displaced workers, the region can be more than a Rust Belt.
Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams likes the idea of enhanced training. But Williams - a Democrat who's supporting Barack Obama - says McCain has an uphill battle, especially since his platform on taxes and health care is very similar to President Bush's.
Mayor JAY WILLIAMS (Youngstown, Ohio): If it was just John McCain absent the last eight years, he might have a better opportunity. But I think he's going to be hard pressed to really distance himself from what's been going on over the past eight years.
HORSLEY: Still, Williams gives McCain credit for showing up in Youngstown. Like many of the stops on McCain's tour this week, the city is heavily Democratic, and heavily African-American.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Even if he didn't win a lot of people over, he did at least put himself in a position to say, well, I came and brought my message there. I wasn't going to run away from the fact that this was a, historically, been a Democratic area.
HORSLEY: And that's the whole point, says political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College.
Professor JACK PITNEY (Political Analyst, Claremont McKenna College): John McCain really isn't expecting to get any more than a sliver of the black vote or do well among poor voters. What he's hoping to do is reach out to moderate white voters who want to see a presidential candidate showing compassion. So, his real audience consists not of the people in front of him, but of the people watching in the media.
HORSLEY: Campaigning in New Orleans yesterday, McCain condemned a TV commercial that's critical of Barack Obama and his Democratic supporters in North Carolina. The ad features Obama, along with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and some of Wright's more controversial comments. The Republican Party of North Carolina plans to air the ad, despite McCain's criticism.
On Wednesday, McCain drew an overflow crowd to the Martin County Courthouse in Kentucky. Republican State Senator Brandon Smith thinks his experience as a prisoner of war may have helped McCain, one of the nation's wealthiest senators, to connect with his poor Appalachian audience.
State Senator BRANDON SMITH (Republican, Kentucky): We were pretty much isolated here in these mountains, and I don't think, a lot of people felt we were left, you know, behind. And I think, obviously, being a POW, you're left behind. You know, you're there on your own. And if there's one thing he connects with people there is he knows what it feels like to be abandoned or to be left behind and to have to be on your own and have to have the inner strength to put it together to come out of that.
HORSLEY: That may help to account for McCain's strong showing with white working-class men. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, McCain did better with those men with either Obama or Hillary Clinton did, but political analyst Pitney warns the sagging economy could erode that support.
Mr. PITNEY: His appeal to white working-class voters is partly cultural and partly a matter of his status as a war hero. But if the economy is still in recession on Election Day, then he's going to have a very, very hard time, no matter how many tours he makes.
HORSLEY: McCain continues his Time for Action tour today in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.
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