A candidate by any other middle name

What’s in a name? Not much it seems for a U.S. presidential hopeful whose first name is Hillary.

On her U.S. Senate Web site, she is New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But on her 2008 presidential campaign site, she is Hillary Clinton.

Does she have a preference? “No,” campaign spokesman Phil Singer said on Friday.

It’s not just an Internet thing. The candidate used Rodham on her official campaign forms, but the name is missing from her campaign bumper stickers, and she is often introduced as just Hillary Clinton.

Her campaign shrugs off any suggestion she has dropped the maiden name to consciously appeal to conservative voters.

“The press spends more time thinking about this topic than we — or the voters — do,” Singer insisted.

At various points in U.S. history, American women have kept their maiden names as a sign of independence.

After Hillary Rodham married Bill Clinton in 1975, she stuck with her maiden name, saying it was partly a gesture to be herself while remaining committed to her husband.

“Because I knew I had my own professional interests and did not want to create any confusion or conflict of interest with my husband’s public career, it made perfect sense to me to continue using my own name,” she wrote in her book “Living History.”

After Bill Clinton lost his 1980 re-election bid as Arkansas governor, she wrote that supporters told her that some people were uncomfortable with her decision to use her maiden name and that it had had an impact on the voting.

She decided then to go by Hillary Rodham Clinton. It may well have helped. Her husband recaptured the governor’s mansion in 1982.

Given her vast exposure during Clinton’s eight years in the White House and her more than six years in the U.S. Senate, most voters may well already have formed opinions without regard for what she calls herself, experts say.

“Very few people will be influenced by that, their position on Hillary Clinton is fixed,” said University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato. “It’s hard to come across people who don’t have a fixed opinion of her, love or hate.”

Her campaign Web site is www.hillaryclinton.com, but the headline across the top reads simply: “Hillary for President.”

Romney aide may have posed as cop

An ever-present aide to Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney took a leave of absence Friday after he became the subject of investigations in two states for allegedly impersonating a law enforcement officer. His attorney denied the charges.

Jay Garrity, who serves as director of operations and is constantly at the side of the former Massachusetts governor, is accused of leaving a lengthy message with the answering service of a plumbing company on Mother’s Day, identifying himself as “Trooper Garrity” of the Massachusetts State Police and complaining about erratic driving by a company driver.

The district attorney in Boston is investigating the call, which was tape recorded by an after-hours operator. Impersonating an officer is a misdemeanor charge carrying a fine of up to $400 and one year imprisonment.

“Listening to the message, it sounded like he was calling control and speaking back and forth to people,” said Dot Barme, whose Burlington company, Wayne’s Drains, received the call. “I had my husband listen to it and he said, ‘He’s not talking to anybody; he’s talking back and forth to himself,” Barme told The Associated Press.

Stephen Jones, an attorney representing Garrity, said his client did not make the May 13 call, first reported by The Boston Globe, and has no connection with the cell phone to which it was traced.

“He has insisted since he’s heard about this to have a voice analysis done to exonerate him or prove he did not do this,” Jones said.

Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, confirmed the investigation.

“We’re looking into a phone call placed to an area business by an individual who represented himself as a state trooper,” Wark said. “We do not believe the person who made that call is a state trooper and we are working to determine his identity.”

Meanwhile, Garrity also has been accused of telling a New York Times reporter who had been following Romney’s motorcade in New Hampshire last month that he had run the license plate of the reporter’s rental car, and that he should break away from the caravan.

The New Hampshire attorney general’s office is investigating that incident after the reporter, Mark Leibovich, recounted the May 29 events in a story about Romney last weekend. New Hampshire law prohibits citizens from accessing the state’s license plate database.

“Jay has taken a leave of absence from the campaign to address these complaints,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.

Jones, the Garrity attorney, disputed the sequence of events. Leibovich has stood by his version of the story.

In 2004, Garrity was cited and fined by Massachusetts officials after a Ford Crown Victoria registered to him was found to have lights, a siren, radios and other law enforcement equipment — including a baton — after it was parked illegally in Boston’s North End. At the time, Garrity was paid $75,000 annually as Romney’s gubernatorial chief of operations.

Hillary courts the libs

Trying to win over her party’s liberal activists, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday accused President Bush of disregarding the Constitution and promised to bring a new progressive vision to the White House.

Bush’s government has “a stunning record of secrecy and corruption, of cronyism run amok,” she said in one of the more partisan speeches of her campaign. “It is everything our founders were afraid of, everything our Constitution was designed to prevent.”

Clinton returned to the Take Back America conference where she was booed last year for opposing a set date for pulling U.S. troops from Iraq. This time, she said she is working to deauthorize the war.

Her comments on Iraq at the end of her 30-minute speech drew heckles, but she also won applause for promising to get out of Iraq and for embracing liberal positions on domestic issues such as health care, worker rights, education and stem cell research.

Bush vetoed a bill later in the day that would have eased restraints on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. Clinton, who spoke about six hours before the veto, promised to lift the restrictions if elected.

“This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families, just one more example of how out of touch with reality he and his party have become,” she said. “And it’s just one more example as to why we’re going to send them packing in January 2009 and return progressive leadership to the White House.

One audience member yelled, “Impeach him!”

After his veto, Bush said he will not allow human life to be destroyed to save others.

On Iraq, Clinton said the military has succeeded by removing Saddam Hussein from power, giving Iraqis the chance for free and fair elections and to govern themselves.

“The American military has succeeded. It is the Iraqi government which has failed to make the tough decisions that are important for their own people,” Clinton said, although a loud chorus of boos cut off the end of her sentence.

“You know, I love coming here every year,” Clinton said with a smile while the crowd continued to boo, with her supporters trying to drown the protesters out in cheers.

Members of the anti-war group Code Pink stood up throughout the audience, raising signs and holding up their fingers in a peace sign.

“I see the signs — ‘Get us out of Iraq now.’ That is what we are trying to do,” she said. She said she is working with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to sponsor legislation to deauthorize the war.

One of the protesters was Laurie Meier of St. Louis, who was wearing a police-style cap and shirt that said “Pink Police” on the back. She said Clinton is responsible for her vote to authorize the war and for repeatedly voting to fund it, until the most recent spending bill that she voted against.

“To blame it on the Iraqis is a cop out,” Meier said.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, another presidential candidate, also spoke Wednesday. He said Vice President Dick Cheney should be impeached and won enthusiastic applause from the audience.

___

On the Net:

http://www.hillaryclinton.com

Edwards used non-profit for self-promotion

When John Edwards pursued his crusade against poverty in 2005, he created a nonprofit center that allowed him to maintain a high profile — and avoid the legal scrutiny aimed at presidential candidates.

Not that Edwards was running for the White House at that point. Fresh from his loss as Democratic nominee John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, he would not declare himself a candidate for president until late in 2006.

However, the nonprofit Center for Promise and Opportunity offered distinct advantages to Edwards, its honorary chairman. The center’s five officers all had worked for his previous presidential campaign, for example, and it appears to have paid for his travel to New Hampshire and several delegate-rich states.

The center wasn’t subject to the limits imposed by federal election laws on a presidential exploratory committee, the first major step in raising money toward a bid. Meanwhile, it may have stretched the limits of tax law, which prohibits political nonprofits from having a primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates.

“It’s possible that the ‘opportunity’ the center was promoting was only John Edwards’ opportunity — his opportunity to run for president,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks money in politics.

The Edwards campaign describes his activities back then in a different light.

“Edwards led these efforts to raise awareness about poverty and other obstacles to equal opportunity, explore ideas to meet those challenges and test some of them in the real world,” said Eric Schultz, his spokesman. “One of the ways he did that was through the Center for Promise and Opportunity.”

With the nonprofit, though, there were no limits on the amount of money Edwards could raise, either from individual donors or overall.

Compared to exploratory committees and political action committees regulated by the Federal Election Commission, the center didn’t have to disclose nearly as much information about how it was spending the money or where it came from. It has been able to keep that limited amount of information under wraps for much longer.

PACs must update the FEC on their finances every quarter, and an exploratory committee must document its fundraising and spending with federal regulators not long after a potential candidate formally enters the race. Edwards’ nonprofit filed its 2005 annual report with the Internal Revenue Service in November 2006 and has yet to file its 2006 report, having asked for an extension beyond the May deadline.

The campaign declined to release the figures that will be in the 2006 report to The Associated Press.

The center raised and spent $1.3 million in 2005, according to the IRS report, and it employed several staff members who now work for Edwards’ 2008 campaign. The center also appears to have paid for some of Edwards’ travels across the country that year.

Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman who works as an attorney in Washington, said there’s nothing wrong with the approach Edwards took — so long as he did not conduct any campaign-like activities, such as disproportionate travel to early voting states or using funds to maintain a political staff.

“The FEC may take issue with Edwards if he had already made up his mind to run as a candidate and there was an intentional effort to utilize an outside nonprofit to float the campaign for a while,” Thomas said.

In 2005, the nonprofit paid for Edwards’ “Opportunity Rocks” tour of college campuses nationwide, where he worked to mobilize students to address poverty — the signature issue of his presidential campaign. Stops included Arizona, North Carolina Missouri, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, California, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan.

The nonprofit also hosted seminars to discuss foreign policy and Iraq. In November 2005, Edwards wrote in The Washington Post that he was wrong to have voted in favor of the war, a key turning point in his foreign policy stance and one that continues to drive his current position.

The nonprofit had five officers in 2005: Miles Lackey, a senior Edwards adviser; Peter Scher, an Edwards adviser and former campaign manager; David Ginsberg, a senior campaign adviser; Ed Turlington, Edwards’ former campaign chairman and current adviser; and Alexis Bar, Edwards’ former scheduling director.

All worked for the Edwards campaign in 2004, and all but Bar now work for his 2008 campaign. About 20 percent of the nonprofit’s budget went to unnamed consultants, according to IRS filings. Another 37 percent went to salaries and wages.

Tax laws, however, raise different issues.

“The tax definition for ‘candidate’ is a lot fuzzier than the campaign definition of a candidate,” said Lloyd Mayer, a Notre Dame law professor and nonprofit tax expert who has represented major advocacy groups, including the NAACP National Voter Fund.

“For tax law, it’s more of a ‘walk like a duck, talk like a duck’ rule,” he said. “If you look like a candidate and act like one, the IRS may consider that the nonprofit is doing too much political advocacy.”

Edwards did have a political action committee. But unlike the nonprofit, his One America Committee was subject to the FEC’s strict transparency and oversight rules that require the disclosure of expenditures and the source of donations.

“Since it does appear that candidate Edwards was using his nonprofit to build his national profile up to his presidential campaign, it would be nice to know who was backing and who was financing that,” Ritsch said.

Edwards also had his personal fortune at hand. Last month, he and his wife, Elizabeth, reported $29.5 million in assets.

In explaining Edwards’ activities, Schultz also pointed to the work of a second nonprofit, the similarly named Center for Promise and Opportunity Foundation, which raised $70,000 in 2005 to help coordinate Edwards’ College for Everyone scholarship program at a rural and impoverished high school in Greene County, N.C.

Bradley Smith, a former FEC chairman appointed in 2000 by President Clinton, said Edwards shouldn’t face any trouble from federal regulators unless he was explicitly campaigning for the Democratic nomination.

Edwards traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire at least four times each in 2005.

He took care not to say he was running until late 2006, after a year in which he spent much of his time traveling in early primary states, particularly Iowa. He visited the Hawkeye State more than a dozen times before announcing his candidacy.

Because the nonprofit has yet to file its IRS report for 2006, its not clear how much it supported Edwards or his staff that year. Much of his travel was funded by the One America Committee, a political action committee that spent $1.56 million to fund travel officially aimed at supporting Democratic candidates in the months leading up to the 2006 election.

It wasn’t until Jan. 3 that Edwards, almost a week after kicking off his second bid for the White House from the front yard of a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged home in New Orleans, filed the paperwork to open “John Edwards for President,” his official campaign committee, with the FEC.

“We all know that he was a candidate for president, but if he wasn’t going around saying, ‘I’m running for president,’ he’s probably all right,” Smith said.

Rudy admits mistake joining Iraq group

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani Wednesday defended his decision to quit the Iraq Study Group before it finished its work, saying he realized it was “a mistake” to have joined the panel just as he was about to launch his presidential campaign.

Following a campaign speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Giuliani was peppered with questions about his short-lived service on the non-partisan panel, which Congress created to make recommendations about the future of the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

Published reports have said that Giuliani made paid speaking engagements at times when the group was scheduled to meet. Meanwhile, Giuliani reportedly was issued an ultimatum to either begin attending meetings or lose his position.

The controversy over Giuliani’s short tenure on the panel was first reported by Newsday.

Giuliani told reporters today that it was a “mistake” for him to have agreed to be part of the commission, since he, unlike other commission members, still harbored political ambitions.

“It didn’t seem I’d really be able to stay focused on a bipartisan, non-political resolution,” he said. “I started to listen to some of the discussions, and it was clear to me … by the time they made their report we were going to be in the political season.

“Suppose the report came out, I was on the commission, and then I did a dissenting opinion or people thought it was skewed in some way to help me. It just made no sense. It was not the right thing to do.”

Giuliani was making a rare campaign stop in Iowa, where he trails in the most recent state polls.

He recently announced that he plans to skip the GOP’s traditional Ames Straw Poll in August, a non-binding but closely-watched event that gauges Republican candidates’ early support leading up to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

Giuliani told reporters that he plans to step up his campaigning in the state and that he’ll mount a serious effort for next January’s caucuses.

“Whether we make a tactical decision about one political process or not, we’re very committed to the caucuses,” Giuliani said.

“Once we do spend a lot of time here, I think you’re going to see those polls change dramatically. I think we’ve got a great message for Iowa. I think Iowa is a state that understands what we’re talking about today: fiscal discipline.”

At a press conference, Giuliani also was asked about current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced Tuesday he was giving up his Republican Party registration. Although Bloomberg said he is focused on completing his term as mayor, his move fueled speculation that he might be preparing to run for president as an independent.

“I have nothing against Mike, except I am disappointed he left the Republican Party,” Giuliani said.

He was asked if he’s concerned that someone he once helped get elected mayor now might be a competitor in the race for the White House.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday suggested that in a three-way race in New York state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, would beat both fellow New Yorkers, Giuliani and Bloomberg.

“How do we know if he’s going to run? How do we know if I’m going to be the candidate? I think I am. I think I am,” Giuliani said. “He says he’s not running. I take him at his word. If he does decide to run, he has every right to do it.”

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)

Bill Richardson gets down and dirty

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who began his race for the Democratic presidential nomination by asking competitors to sign a pledge to run only positive campaigns, is now poking sharp words at the leading Democratic candidates on Iraq as he tries to climb out of fourth place in the polls.

Richardson told a conference sponsored by liberal groups this week that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had all either voted for or supported bills or resolutions with timetables and “loopholes” that would allow a president to “leave an undetermined number of troops in Iraq indefinitely.”

“I would leave zero troops. Not a single one. And if the embassy and our embassy personnel aren’t safe, then they’re all coming home too,” said Richardson at a “Take Back America” conference. Earlier, he told delegates to a convention sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that “Congress has been weak in trying to stop the war.”

In February, Richardson had asked his rivals to sign a pledge not to run negative campaigns.

“I don’t buy this nonsense that negative campaigns toughen up a nominee. Save it for the Republicans,” Richardson told the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 3.

Since then, Richardson has risen to fourth place in both national polls and polls in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards. But he is still only favored by about one in 10 likely primary and caucus voters, and he has struggled to get national media attention.

Richardson told reporters Tuesday that “I still am a nice guy. I am not being negative. I am pointing out differences. On a fundamental difference like Iraq policy I think we need to sharpen the differences,” said Richardson. “I’ve been trying to point this out for some time and hopefully this will get some attention.”

Richardson said he wants U.S. troops out by the end of 2007. He said he believes that leaving any U.S. troops in Iraq, even to train Iraqi troops, will only make them targets.

“There is not a single sign that Iraq is improving. To the contrary, every indication is that it’s getting worse and a smaller force will do nothing to change that,” said Richardson.

He said he would “leverage” the departure of U.S. troops to force the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions to come to a political settlement and have an all-Muslim force from Turkey, Jordan and possibly Syria and Iran keep the peace.

Clinton told the AFSCME conference that she would begin withdrawing troops immediately, but that some troops might have to remain to prevent Iraq from becoming a staging ground for al Qaeda, to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, to guard against Iranian influence and possibly as trainers.

Edwards said he would immediately draw down 40,000 to 50,000 of the 150,000 American troops now in Iraq and continue to withdraw combat troops over the next 10 months.

Obama said the best option is to “begin a phased redeployment, that we’re as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.”

Rudy’s South Carolina chairman indicted

Republican Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani’s South Carolina state chairman stepped down Tuesday after a federal grand jury indicted him on cocaine charges.

Thomas Ravenel, South Carolina State Treasurer, is a former real estate developer and a rising star in southern politics.

The indictment came as a second blow to Giuliani’s troubled campaign for President this week, hard on the heels of revelations that the former New York mayor who became a symbol of the city’s struggles in the 9/11 terrorist had quit the Iraq Study Group panel to hit the lecture circuit and earn millions.

Reports Newsday:

Rudolph Giuliani’s membership on an elite Iraq study panel came to an abrupt end last spring after he failed to show up for a single official meeting of the group, causing the panel’s top Republican to give him a stark choice: either attend the meetings or quit, several sources said.

Giuliani left the Iraq Study Group last May after just two months, walking away from a chance to make up for his lack of foreign policy credentials on the top issue in the 2008 race, the Iraq war.

He cited “previous time commitments” in a letter explaining his decision to quit, and a look at his schedule suggests why — the sessions at times conflicted with Giuliani’s lucrative speaking tour that garnered him $11.4 million in 14 months.

Giuliani failed to show up for a pair of two-day sessions that occurred during his tenure, the sources said — and both times, they conflicted with paid public appearances shown on his recent financial disclosure. Giuliani quit the group during his busiest stretch in 2006, when he gave 20 speeches in a single month that brought in $1.7 million.

The Associated Press reports on Revenel’s problems:

Ravenel has stepped down from his volunteer responsibilities with the campaign, according to a statement released by Mark Campbell, Giuliani’s political director.

Campbell said the campaign has no information about the accusations pending against Ravenel.

The millionaire is accused of buying less than 500 grams of the drug to share with other people in late 2005, U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd said.

Ravenel, 44, is charged with distribution of cocaine, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The investigation into Ravenel arose from a drug case last year in Charleston, Lloyd said.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart said his agents were aware of the allegations before Ravenel was elected in November, but they didn’t have enough information to pursue criminal charges. The case was turned over to the FBI in April.

“The investigation is just beginning,” the federal prosecutor said.

The man accused of selling Ravenel the drug, Michael L. Miller, is in custody on the same charge.

Ravenel will be allowed to turn himself in, authorities said. The treasurer’s office referred all questions to Ravenel’s lawyer Joel Collins, who did not return a message left at his office.

Gov. Mark Sanford suspended Ravenel immediately based on the serious nature of the charge. The governor said he would name an interim treasurer soon.

“These are obviously very serious allegations that we’re constitutionally bound to act upon, and they’ll ultimately be decided by the courts.” Sanford said in a statement.

Ravenel started his political career in 2004, funding his own campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. He finished a close third in the Republican primary.

Ravenel was founder of the Ravenel Development Corp., a commercial real estate development company. His father, Arthur Ravenel Jr., was a powerful politician from Charleston who served eight years in the U.S. House and is a former state representative and state senator.

Bloomberg quits Repubican Party

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now a politician looking for a party.

He may also be looking at a run for the President as an independent in 2008.

Bloomberg quit the Republican Party Tuesday, saying “the politics of partisanship…have paralyzed decision-making.”

The break is not a surprise. Bloomberg is a frequent critic of President George W. Bush’s policies. He also was a lifelong Democrat before switching to the GOP in 2001 for his first run for Mayor.

Reports The Associated Press:

“Although my plans for the future haven’t changed, I believe this brings my affiliation into alignment with how I have led and will continue to lead our city,” Bloomberg said.

With an estimated worth of more than $5 billion, he easily could finance an independent presidential bid.

The 65-year-old mayor has increasingly been the subject of speculation that he will run as an independent in 2008, despite his repeated promises to leave politics after the end of his term in 2009. He has fueled the buzz with increasing out-of-state travel, a greater focus on national issues and repeated criticism of the partisan politics that dominate Washington.

“The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, primarily at the federal level, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy,” he said in a speech Monday at the start of a University of Southern California conference about the advantages of nonpartisan governing.

Throughout his 5 1/2 years as mayor, Bloomberg has often been at odds with his party and President Bush. He supports gay marriage, abortion rights, gun control and stem cell research, and raised property taxes to help solve a fiscal crisis after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But he never seemed willing to part with the GOP completely, raising money for the 2004 presidential convention and contributing to Bush and other Republican candidates.

Just last year, he told a group of Manhattan Republicans about his run for mayor: “I couldn’t be prouder to run on the Republican ticket and be a Republican.”

Obama admits a ‘dumb mistake’

In a rare moment of political candor, Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama Monday admitted his campaign screwed up big time by sending out a memo criticizing opponent Hillary Clinton’s financial ties to India.

“It was a dumb mistake on our campaign’s part and I made it clear to my staff in no uncertain terms that it was a mistake,” Obama told the Associated Press in a brief interview in which he referred to the memo as “unnecessarily caustic.”

The memo, sent to reporters, is the latest misstep in the Obama campaign that appears to be losing ground to front-runner Clinton. It also fuels speculation that the Illinois Senator’s inexperience may be showing as the Presidential race heats up.

Reports the AP:

Obama disavowed the memo which carried the headline — “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab) — and referred to Bill and Hillary Clintons’ investments in India; her fundraising among Indian-Americans; and the former president’s $300,000 in speech fees from Cisco, a company that has moved U.S. jobs to India.

Last Thursday, Obama’s campaign sent the memo to reporters, demanding that it not be attributed to their campaign. The Clinton campaign obtained the document and sent it to journalists. Since then, it has created a furor in the Indian-American community and raised questions about Obama’s claims that he is above attack politics.

“It is not reflective of the long-standing relationship I have had with the Indian-American community,” Obama said in the interview.

“The issue of outsourcing is a genuine and important issue but to refer to one particular country was, I think, an error and I let all of us know that we’ve got to be more careful about how we communicate,” he said.

In a statement on his Web site, Obama said he was not aware of the contents of the memo before it was distributed. The Illinois senator said he was responsible for the mistake and the campaign had taken appropriate action “to prevent errors like this from happening in the future.”

The campaign said the new policy is to ensure that senior staff will review materials before they are distributed publicly.

Obama was campaigning in Iowa on Monday. Stopping in an Iowa town rocked by the closure of a Maytag plant, he called for new efforts to create jobs and end tax subsidies for companies that shift jobs overseas.

Obama focused on economic issues during his visit to Newton, a town of about 15,000 dealing with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs due to the closure of a Maytag plant and offices. The appliance manufacturer based in Newton was bought last year by rival Whirlpool Corp.

“While it’s not possible to stop globalization in its tracks, what we can do is make sure we have a government that’s looking out for our workers,” Obama said. “We can do more to create a government that’s creating quality jobs here in America, and we can do more to create a government that’s helping workers who lose their jobs.”

In Newton, Obama spoke before about 300 people and promised to increase federal grants and job training programs to communities dealing with job losses.

Later, Obama visited Ottumwa, a blue-collar town in eastern Iowa that has endured changes in the meatpacking industry. More than 700 people jammed into a high school gymnasium to hear his speech.

Obama, Thompson lead in South Carolina

South Carolina appears poised to shake up the 2008 presidential race, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Fred Thompson the frontrunners in a new state survey by Mason-Dixon.

With strong support from the African American community, Illinois Senator Obama has assumed a strong lead over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. On the Republican side, Thompson zoomed to the top spot, slightly ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, even though he hasn’t yet announced his bid for the GOP nomination.

The Mason-Dixon poll, made available to McClatchy Newspapers and NBC News, offered disappointing news for two candidates who previously had been polling well in South Carolina. John Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the primary in 2004, was well behind Obama and Clinton on the Democratic side. Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, appeared to have lost many of his supporters to Thompson, and was far back in the GOP field.

Although it is still nearly seven months off, the first Southern presidential primary is proving a major attraction to candidates in both parties, who are spending extensive time in South Carolina.

Obama led in the new poll with 34 percent of likely voters to 25 percent for Clinton. Edwards was third at 12 percent. Sen. Joe Biden was at 2 percent; so was former Vice President Al Gore, who has given no indication of running but whose name was volunteered by some voters. Twenty-four percent were undecided.

Thompson, a television actor and former Tennessee senator, topped Giuliani by 25 percent to 21 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was next at 11 percent, followed by McCain at 7 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 5 percent. Huckabee has gotten strong notices in the last two Republican debates. Twenty-eight percent were undecided.

The new poll was striking evidence of Thompson’s rise from nowhere in early presidential readings to potential front-runner status. Thompson’s first campaign swing as he edges toward a formal candidacy will be in South Carolina on June 27.

“Thompson could be emerging as the Southern candidate,” said Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason-Dixon poll.

McCain’s slide into single digits might reflect his support for the immigration reform package, legislation that is unpopular among South Carolina Republicans. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was booed at a recent GOP state gathering when he sought to defend the reforms.

“His support among base Republicans is slipping away,” Coker said of McCain.

Giuliani’s performance in the wake of 9/11 and his strong support for the war in Iraq and national security have, so far, overcome doubts among South Carolina Republicans about his moderate views on abortion and other social issues. Romney meanwhile, has found only moderate traction in the state and has been focusing his campaign advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire.

For Democrats, the most crucial group of voters in South Carolina are blacks, who by some estimates could make up more than half of the party’s primary voters.

Nationally, Clinton leads Obama among black voters. But in South Carolina, likely voters overwhelmingly favored Obama (41 percent) over Clinton (18 percent). About one-third of the black voters in South Carolina remained undecided.

“As long as he maintains his edge in the black community, Obama has the edge in South Carolina,” said Coker.

Earlier South Carolina polls have mostly shown Clinton with a lead over Obama and Edwards still in the hunt.

Edwards has been counting on a strong showing in South Carolina, but his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war and drift to the left on other issues may not be playing well with the state’s pro-military, generally conservative voters.

South Carolina’s Democratic primary is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29 and Republican primary for Feb. 2.

The telephone poll, conducted June 13-15, involved 329 likely Democratic primary voters and 423 likely Republican primary voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.5 percentage points for the Democratic poll, and plus or minus 4.8 percentage points for the Republican poll.