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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton smothered Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain with kindness on Friday, then declared her rivals wrong on the issues and vowed to beat both in her quest for the presidency.
She said Obama, her Democratic foe, has run an “extraordinary campaign,” and called McCain, the likely Republican nominee, “a man of great heroism.”
But she said McCain represents “more of the same” in Iraq, and she cast Obama as an obstacle to universal health care. She also unveiled a tough new ad against Obama, accusing him of dodging debates.
Her remarks came on a day when she characterized herself as the “candidate of, from and for the middle class of America” and endeavored to keep her Democratic coalition in Ohio intact against a hard-charging Obama.
Obama’s brochures to voters, she said, “sound like they’ve been written by the health insurance industry and the Republicans, talking about how we can’t possibly get to universal health care.”
“My opponent has given up the fight before we’ve ever started,” she told a gathering of Democrats at a party fundraiser outside Akron.
Clinton has relied on working-class Democrats for much of her support in six weeks of presidential primary contests across the country and is counting on them even as Obama racks up important union endorsements.
The former first lady and New York senator is running a three-pronged strategy as she heads into the high-stakes March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas. She is honing a tough new populist message, she is sharpening her criticism of Obama and she is presenting herself as the candidate who is better schooled in the intricacies of government policy.
“I’ve never seen a candidate so wealthy in information,” Martha Hanon, a retired teacher, gushed to Clinton during a discussion Friday of economic issues in a packed chili restaurant here.
Clinton did show off her grasp of details, easily reciting facts and figures on subjects from foreclosure to foster care. The occasion was a round-table session designed to feature Clinton’s proposal to address credit card abuses, but the discussion strayed to a variety of economic issues.
Throughout the day, Clinton demonstrated her new approach and easily slipped from policy to combat.
“We’re going to end every single tax break that still exists in the federal tax code that gives one penny of your money to anybody who exports a job. Those days are done,” she said, her voice rising. “It is wrong that an investment money manager in Wall Street making $50 million a year gets a lower tax rate than a teacher, a nurse, a truck driver, and autoworker making $50,000 a year.”
“You know sometimes I hear people saying on TV or I read in the papers: ‘Look she gets so intense, she gets all upset.’ Well, you’re right, I am upset!”
Later, at a packed high school gym outside Cleveland she repeated what is becoming her standard anti-Obama line.
“There is a big difference between speeches and solutions, between talk and action,” she said. “I just believe that if you were hiring a president I would be the one you would hire for the job.”
She has even altered Obama’s signature chant of hope — “Yes we can!” — into one of determination — “Yes we will!”
Clinton has been especially hitting Obama on health care, saying his proposal wouldn’t achieve universal care because he does not require everybody to obtain health insurance. Clinton’s plan has such a mandate, Obama’s does not. Obama aims to make insurance more affordable by offering government subsidies to those who can’t afford it.
She also unveiled a tough ad in Wisconsin on Friday that criticizes Obama for declining to debate her in Wisconsin, although the two have debated nearly a dozen times, and accuses him of “hiding behind false attack ads.”
Clinton advisers, conceding Obama’s ability to motivate voters, say she needs to distinguish herself from Obama by stressing substance, offering more contrasts with her rival and making a direct appeal to workers.
Clinton is working hard to project herself as a champion of workers who, as she said, is from the middle class. But though she grew up in a middle-class family in Illinois, she also attended elite East Coast colleges, became a lawyer, was the nation’s first lady, is now a senator and has enough wealth that she could lend her campaign $5 million.
But Obama, who has relied on a coalition of African-American voters and well-educated upscale Democrats, has been winning labor endorsements that could cut into Clinton’s base of core supporters. On Friday, he was endorsed by the Service Employees International Union, a powerful political force with 1.9 million members.
Obama now leads the chase for nomination delegates 1,280-1,218. While Clinton aides have argued the importance of accumulating delegates, they are now beginning to emphasize the significance of the states she has won.
“We’ve learned there is this binary way that we’re deciding who is doing well,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., an informal adviser who was traveling with Clinton. “One is the delegate count and the other is winning states.”
Clinton has won large states such as California, New Jersey and her home state of New York. Winning Ohio and Texas would be additional big prizes.
“These are the states that Democrats have to do well in if we’re going to win the presidency,” Weiner said.
Public polls place Clinton comfortably ahead in Ohio, but Weiner and others predicted that the race would tighten significantly in the state.