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McCain talks poverty

Times Staff Writer

More than four decades ago outside this small Appalachian town, President Johnson began his War on Poverty. In the 1980s, President Reagan scoffed that poverty had won the war.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried to position himself somewhere between Johnson and Reagan while campaigning here Wednesday, styling himself as a compassionate conservative but emphasizing his crusade against “wasteful” government spending.

“I wouldn’t be back here today if government had fulfilled the promises that Lyndon Johnson made 44 years ago,” McCain told reporters as his campaign bus rolled through the green hills of eastern Kentucky. “The moral of the story is -- government isn’t always the answer.”

McCain said he hoped his plans for tax cuts and expanding high-speed Internet in rural areas could offer a new path for fighting poverty in places such as Inez. The community is the county seat of Martin County, where 46% of adults haven’t finished high school, the median household income is less than $22,800 and 30.5% of the population lives below the poverty level, according to census figures.

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The several hundred people who lined Inez’s main street, a thoroughfare of mostly closed shops, warmly received McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

During a town-hall-style meeting in the courthouse, McCain said Johnson had “the very best of intentions” with his 1964 poverty campaign, but added that government “can’t create good and lasting jobs” or “buy you a house or send all your kids to college.”

“You’ve never wanted government to make your living for you,” McCain said. “You just expect us to show a decent concern for your hard work and initiative, and do what we can . . . to help make sure you have opportunities to prosper from your labor.”

A centerpiece of McCain’s speech was an economic initiative that would give tax write-offs to companies that offered high-speed Internet access to low-income people. In towns where businesses won’t offer that aid, he said, the government would make government-backed loans or low-interest bonds available.

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Otherwise, the third day of McCain’s tour of America’s “forgotten places” seemed largely symbolic.

When a reporter asked what could be done about healthcare coverage in Appalachia, as well as the high rates of diabetes, obesity and cancer, McCain said his administration would emphasize “wellness and fitness.”

He also mentioned his proposal for a $5,000 refundable tax credit to allow families to “go out and acquire at least some level of health insurance,” and added that he would recruit professional athletes to visit rural communities to talk about nutrition.

A reporter noted that McCain’s tax cut proposals, which he touted Wednesday, might require significant cuts in domestic discretionary spending. He said he couldn’t promise that federal anti-poverty programs would be untouched, especially if they were “ineffective.”

In Inez, a Republican stronghold, several independent and Democratic attendees said they were undecided between McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Tina Bowens, a 41-year-old homemaker and Democrat leaning toward McCain, said she was bothered by McCain’s Iraq war position that setting “a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender.”

“I think we could be better spending that much money on programs for this country to help us get out of the recession,” Bowens said.

“It’s just the Vietnam War of the younger generation,” interjected her friend, Jennifer Wilhite, a 36-year-old Democrat also deciding between McCain and Clinton. “Are we fighting over terrorism? Are we fighting over oil? What are we really fighting over?”

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Wilhite, a single mother who works as a home healthcare nurse, bar manager and housecleaner, said the most pivotal issue for her this fall was that Clinton’s health insurance plan might help her get coverage.

The two women, who live in nearby Kermit, W.Va., say they like McCain’s emphasis on offering more loans to small businesses -- they hope to start a bakery and gift-basket business called Wannabeez -- as well as his plan to bring high-speed Internet to more areas of rural America.

The crowd in predominantly white Inez appeared cool toward Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who would be the first African American president if elected in November.

During the Inez town-hall session, state Sen. Brandon Smith asked McCain what he thought of Obama’s recent comments that some Pennsylvanians cling to guns and religion as a result of their economic struggles.

McCain, who later said the comments were elitist, first asked the questioner whether he thought Obama’s comments reflected the views of his constituents.

“I think it reflects the views of somebody who doesn’t understand the views of this neck of the woods,” Smith said, prompting a standing ovation from the audience.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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