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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The countless hands that presidential candidates are shaking this year include the hands of two people we're about to meet. One sought out Barack Obama. The other looked up to see Hillary Clinton. Both ended up in much publicized events that raise a question about the distinction between the campaigns and reality.

NPR's David Greene met both voters and he's in our studios.

And David, who are they?

DAVID GREENE: One woman was looking for help for her brother who has cancer and came to a Barack Obama event seeing if he could give her some help. And the other woman you're going to meet is a waitress in Iowa. And she served Hillary Clinton a sandwich, never expecting to meet the senator from New York that day.

INSKEEP: And why did you want to go try to find these people?

GREENE: You know, we have these photo ops on the campaign trail. Candidates move from one town to another so quickly. They meet people for a few seconds and then we as reporters move right along with the candidates. I wanted to go back and see what these moments were like for people because I imagine that they might be pretty special.

INSKEEP: Some of them end up getting used in effect as props. And you want to find out who the human beings were.

GREENE: Exactly. And so I want to start with the waitress. And I was following Hillary Clinton across Iowa, and she made this very fast stop for lunch in the town of Toledo, Iowa. And her big bus, the whole entourage stopped at this restaurant that's famous for its ground beef sandwiches. And she came across this waitress, a single working mom. And you probably know single working moms are a huge target group for the Democratic candidates this year. So not surprisingly at all, as soon as Hillary Clinton had this conversation, as she went on to the next towns, talked to other crowds, this woman became a big part of her stump speech. So let's give a listen to this.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know, we left Cedar Rapids on the way to Marshalltown and we stopped at a Maid-Rite. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: We did. We loaded up on Maid-Rite.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: And the woman who was waiting on us, it was her first day, and you know, here I come with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: It was like, hello, welcome to Maid-Rite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: So she was a little nervous. Single mom, raised two boys, works at a nursing home, plus always has a second job.

GREENE: So the waitress's name is Anita Esterday. And I went back to find her a few weeks later at this Maid-Rite. And Anita was telling me about these famous sandwiches.

Ms. ANITA ESTERDAY (Waitress): It's just real, real fine loose meat sandwich. And everybody seems to love it with mustard and pickle on it because that's what the tradition's been.

GREENE: I'll take it with mustard and pickle.

Ms. ESTERDAY: Okay.

GREENE: There we go.

So I finished the sandwich, and Anita sits down after her shift, and she is telling me about how she raised two boys all on her own.

Ms. ESTERDAY: It used to always be a thing where we were the Three Musketeers. And we always have been.

GREENE: And she's just really frustrated that she's been having to work at the Maid-Rite and at this nursing home.

Ms. ESTERDAY: To make ends meet, I shouldn't have to work two and three jobs. Do you understand what I'm saying? Minimum wage sucks big time. And even though they're going to - I think in Iowa, the first of January it goes up to seven-something. It still sucks. I mean, that's not enough.

GREENE: She tells me that when Hillary Clinton was there she told the senator about how hard she really has it.

Ms. ESTERDAY: I said, I have my own student loans to pay off. I said, but I'm used to working two and three jobs. It's something I've done all my life. Why should it change now that I'm old?

GREENE: And do you get the sense that she understood what you were saying?

Ms. ESTERDAY: No. I don't think she understood at all what I was saying. You know, I was hoping, I was really hoping that she understood. I really don't think that she does. I mean, it's kind of like nobody got left a tip that day.

GREENE: Senator Clinton's meal was free. The owner had said the senator didn't have to pay a bill. But Esterday says Clinton could've left her something.

Ms. ESTERDAY: Afterwards it's like do you guys really live in the real world? I mean, you know, and you know, maybe they don't think nothing about it. Maybe they don't carry money. I don't know.

GREENE: Esterday says the visit hurt her in another way. The local paper had photos of her with Clinton. She says her supervisor at the nursing home is not a big Hillary Clinton fan. And Esterday says she thinks that's part of why her hours were almost totally cut. And now Anita Esterday is looking for a different second job. But still, she says she's not upset that Hillary Clinton came by that day.

Ms. ESTERDAY: I got my 15 minutes of fame out of the world, there you go. I got her autograph. And that's something I'll treasure, you know, forever. As far as all the attention to me, it hasn't helped my life any. It's made my life worse. So...

GREENE: Do you blame Hillary for that?

Ms. ESTERDAY: Oh no.

INSKEEP: The question put there by NPR's David Greene, who's talking to some people who ended up with the presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

And David, I want to ask, after that experience is Anita Esterday going to vote for Hillary Clinton, this candidate who mentions her on the campaign trail?

GREENE: She says she actually might, even though she got no tip. She says that she likes a lot about Hillary Clinton. She's also thinking about another Democrat, Barack Obama. She is looking in both directions.

And actually, Barack Obama was the other candidate that I was following on this trip to Iowa. And he stopped in a little town called Independence. And that's where he came in contact with the other woman we're going to meet. So Barack Obama was standing there in a fairground. He asked if anyone in the crowd had questions. And a woman in the front row stood right up.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I'm listening to you. Here, we got a mic coming up.

Ms. GERI PUNTENEY: Hi, Obama.

Sen. OBAMA: Hi.

Ms. PUNTENEY: My name is Geri Punteney. I have a brother who is dying of cancer.

Sen. OBAMA: Aw. Take your time.

MS. PUNTENEY: Sorry.

Sen. OBAMA: No, no, no. I know what this feels like.

MS. PUNTENEY: And for him, to be able to keep his insurance he has to work; he has lymphoma and leukemia and they're both in stage three.

GREENE: Steve, this entire event just came to a stop. And you know, this is a different kind of moment. We just heard from a waitress who was working and suddenly Hillary Clinton pops in and causes a lot of commotion. This woman came to see Barack Obama with, you know, a whole crowd around her, but wanted to see if there was something that this presidential candidate could do for her brother. And she got her moment. Barack Obama came over and held her hand and said it's not fair that her brother has to keep working when he's so ill. And also he said that he thinks that every American should have access to health insurance.

Sen. OBAMA: And that's something that I'm committed to doing as president of United States, but tell your brother that we're thinking of him. Maybe I'll write him a note before you leave today. All right. This gentleman right here.

GREENE: So I wanted to go find Geri Punteney, and she lives with her mom in the town of Oelwein, Iowa.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

GREENE: I go to visit on one of those cold windy nights in the state of Iowa, and the first thing you notice outside Punteney's house is these beautiful-sounding wind chimes. She says she got them a few months ago after a friend died in a Jet Ski accident.

Ms. PUNTENEY: I've always loved wind chimes, but I got it in memory of him. It feels like when it blows, and I hear that, that he's around.

GREENE: Punteney's faced a lot of tragedy. One of her brothers was burned as a boy in a 4th of July fireworks accident and he later died. The brother she mentioned to Obama has late stage cancer. And Punteney says she cries a lot of the time and she said something just inspired her to go see Obama when he was coming to the area.

Ms. PUNTENEY: Well, I was seeing the commercials and he just seemed sincere and he is for people like for my mom, my brother, and me.

GREENE: A lot of people would say a politician is the last place to turn if you really need help, but you seem confident.

Ms. PUNTENEY: Yeah. I mean, he just seemed like he really cared and, you know, and I never had anyone pay attention to me and my needs. And he held my hand.

GREENE: So at this point I have a tape recorder and I play back the moment for Punteney.

(Soundbite of recording)

Sen. OBAMA: Tell your brother that we're thinking of him. Maybe I'll write him a note before you leave today.

GREENE: So he said he was going to write a note to your brother?

Ms. PUNTENEY: He didn't have time, I guess. You know, I mean, I understand, you know, because he was being bombarded by so many people. But just knowing that, you know, he knows, that means more than a note.

GREENE: And Steve, Punteney tells me that she sometimes promises that she'll write notes to friends and then she ends up not having the time. And so she really does understand Obama.

INSKEEP: Note or no note, David Greene, did she feel that she got what she came for when she went to that presidential campaign event?

GREENE: She says that she got exactly what she came for, that she just wanted to be noticed.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Greene, covering the presidential campaign, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Steve.

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