An eroding economy has left industrial state voters uneasy and angry, and as Hillary Rodham Clinton made her last stops in Wisconsin before today's primary and Barack Obama swept across Ohio in advance of the state's March 4 contest, both tailored their messages to tie into the anxious mood.
Sixteen years ago, Clinton accompanied her husband as he barnstormed across the country in his first presidential run, scolding a Bush administration that they said was neglecting a beleaguered American middle class.
She dug back into that populist rhetoric Monday in stops in Wisconsin, talking up her solutions to the nation's economic ills as Obama was doing the same in Youngstown, serving up his own fiery economic pitch.
In the last week, Clinton's campaign has become markedly populist in tone as she has emphasized economic themes to win over anxious blue-collar voters in the Wisconsin primary and in the crucial upcoming contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Obama has taken much the same tack in the economically squeezed states. As the candidates aim for the same base of voters, they have tangled more and more in barbed broadsides over their stances on international trade agreements, mortgage foreclosures and economic dislocation.
"You know," Clinton told an audience at a chili parlor in Cincinnati on Friday, "I see people on TV saying, 'Why is she so upset?' "
She spent an hour criticizing the Bush administration ("government of the few, for the few, by the few"), decrying the death of the middle class ("it's time we had a president who is a fighter, a doer and a champion of the middle class"), and comforting a sobbing mother whose home is in foreclosure ("these people work five, six days a week").
In Youngstown on Monday, Obama sounded much the same, highlighting the economic malaise gripping the battered industrial region of northeast Ohio.
"People are desperate," Obama said. "You see it and hear it in Youngstown, but not just in Youngstown. It's everywhere."
Economic populism was a key plank of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential win, stamped in the reminder that was always on display in the candidate's Little Rock, Ark., war room: "It's the economy, stupid."
But the Clintons are now the political establishment, backed by big donors, and are wealthy enough that Hillary Clinton lent her campaign $5 million last month.
As Clinton has sought to portray herself as a middle-class champion, Obama has horned into the action.
He has challenged his rival's bona fides and raised questions about her husband's backing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sore point here among unions and some factory workers who are convinced that it has played a major role in the steady loss of auto plants and manufacturing jobs.
The two campaigns have traded sharp-edged attacks over NAFTA in media ads and campaign mailers.
Playing on Clinton's criticisms that she provided "solutions" while Obama made speeches, the Illinois senator said that "speeches don't put food on the table. But you know what? NAFTA didn't put food on the table."
Clinton and Obama have basically identical positions on NAFTA. Both call for the agreement to be rewritten to include labor and environmental safeguards.
But the law was enacted during President Clinton's first term and Obama is eager to call attention to that.
In Ohio, a must-win state for Clinton and crucial for Democrats in November, "there is a sense there is going to be continued erosion over time and a growing sense of economic despair," said Paul Allen Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
"She's staking out a position that's in some ways a departure from the pro-NAFTA stance her husband developed," Beck said. "That is an opening for Obama, and that is why the Clinton people are responding the way they are."
In Ohio, a state where 79,000 homeowners in 2007 fell victim to mortgage foreclosures --23% more than the previous year -- Clinton touted her proposal to declare a 90-day foreclosure moratorium and freeze sub-prime adjustable mortgages for five years.
Clinton found an audience sympathetic to her lines on the economy when she showed up Monday at St. Norbert College in the northern Wisconsin community of De Pere. Speaking from a podium festooned with a sign reading "Solutions for the American Economy," she vowed to stop giving tax breaks to companies that shipped jobs overseas.
Her approach satisfied Pat Reedy, 50, who used to operate a press at a paper mill near here.
"That actual machine is in Mexico now," Reedy said.
Now studying marketing at a nearby technical university, Reedy said she didn't blame Clinton for her husband's support of NAFTA.
Instead, she brightened when the New York senator criticized companies for outsourcing jobs.
"I want someone who can take care of this," Reedy said. "It's got to stop, this stuff with the big corporations."
Clinton aides say she has long made economic issues part of her campaign speeches -- a strong reason, they add, why she has done well among working-class men and women.
"People who need the economy to work, who are struggling, who really need a president, those are more natural supporters," said Neera Tanden, Clinton's policy director.
But Tanden acknowledges that as the Clinton campaign has moved into blue-collar battlegrounds such as Youngstown and Cleveland, she has ratcheted up her emphasis on economic issues.
On Monday, Clinton's campaign began distributing a 13-page "economic blueprint" at her appearances. It included her plans for universal healthcare, a tax credit to help families pay for college, a new family leave policy and a special prosecutor to go after trade deal violations.
Obama has pushed his own economic cure-alls since touring a General Motors plant last week in Janesville, Wis. He talks regularly about rolling back tax cuts for companies that send jobs overseas and replacing them with middle-class tax relief.
He would help struggling homeowners with a tax credit that would cover 10% of a family's mortgage interest payment every year. His plan to combat the sub-prime mortgage crisis includes a $10-billion fund to provide direct relief to victims of mortgage fraud and penalties for those who commit such fraud.
Obama won wild whoops Monday in a crowded gymnasium at Youngstown State University as he took on the Washington establishment, overpaid CEOs and lobbyists who "drown out the voices of the American people."
Obama also talked about the effects of home foreclosures and drew loud applause when he condemned a college loan system that forced students "to have a mortgage before they have a house."
Riccardi reported from De Pere, Wis., and Hamburger from Youngstown. Times staff writers Stephen Braun in Washington and Maria L. La Ganga in San Antonio contributed to this report.