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Running for the economic empathizer in chief

Times Staff Writers

She has been railing about the price of gasoline, wondering how working mothers pay doctors’ bills, and generally echoing complaints of everyday folks: How can you afford to put kids through college? What about paying that inflated adjustable-rate home loan? Or holding onto a job in a teetering economy?

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made her final push Friday across South Carolina in advance of today’s Democratic presidential primary, channeling the central imperative of her husband’s first run for president: a focus, “like a laser beam,” on the economy.

Not ceding any ground on an issue that has moved front and center in recent days with the tailspin of world economic markets, Clinton’s rivals -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- also focused intently on the pocketbook concerns of South Carolinians.

With the flailing economy in headlines daily, the theme promises to remain central as the candidates turn from South Carolina to the more than 20 states holding primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5. Underlining the rapid expansion of the contest, Obama’s camp launched a Spanish-language television ad in California, and Edwards planned to visit three Southern and border states leading into “Tsunami Tuesday.”

Though the candidates quibbled Friday over their stimulus packages and longer-term prosperity plans, what mainly divided them was the issue of who was most likely to effect economic change.

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Clinton laid out a list of college loan assistance, mortgage relief, heating oil assistance and more. But people who said they would vote for her today focused less on the specifics than on a prospect of a return to the booming economy presided over by her husband in the 1990s.

Obama supporters embraced his message that real economic reform can occur only under the guidance of someone capable of breaking the partisan logjam in Washington.

Fighting for attention, trailing in the polls, Edwards hammered home his message of economic populism, which he has stuck to more than any of the others since the start of the race.

Bill Clinton, running for president in 1992 as a relatively obscure Southern governor, set himself apart with his ability to show empathy to working-class Americans locked in the throes of a recession. His staff was so determined to remain focused on pocketbook issues that famously, it posted a sign at campaign headquarters that said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Hillary Clinton has worked hard to evoke the stories of economically distressed Americans.

On Monday at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., she worried aloud about people she had met on the campaign trail: a mother who can’t get healthcare for her child and the “worker who has done everything he is supposed to do and then he’s laid off. And all of a sudden he is disposable.”

Voters who went to see Clinton this week didn’t appear to be focused on the details of the candidate’s $40-billion tax rebate plan or her proposed a five-year freeze on sub-prime mortgage rate hikes. Instead, they talked about how much they liked the last Clinton era.

“We just have faith and trust that she will bring the country back to its rightful place,” said Julius Sneed, a retired school administrator who attended the rally in Columbia.

Sneed said his wife, also an educator, had to go back to work to help make ends meet.

John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said the shift of the election to economics should benefit Clinton. “This is an issue where the Clinton brand has the greatest impact,” Pitney said. “It points to the most popular aspects of Bill Clinton’s administration -- a booming stock market, low unemployment, low inflation.”

A Times/Bloomberg poll this week showed that probable Democratic-primary voters are much more likely to see Clinton as the candidate best able to handle the economy. Some 48% said she’d be the best economic steward, compared with 27% for Obama and 12% for Edwards.

But Clinton had plenty of company in the bid to become the nation’s empathizer in chief. In 14 hours of campaigning across South Carolina on Friday, Obama held two wide-ranging discussions about the economic challenges of women’s lives.

At a Charleston deli, he talked to a yoga instructor whose 8-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy but gets minimal speech and physical therapy. In Columbia, he spoke with Donna McGreevy, a nurse hobbled by student loans, a second mortgage and credit card debt. He met a teacher whose students raced from class to fast-food jobs to help their parents pay the electric bills.

Of such laments, Obama has said throughout the week: “It’s harder to just keep up. People have to work longer hours just to get by. They’ve never paid more for college, never paid more for healthcare, never paid more for gas at the pump. It’s harder to save. It’s harder to retire.”

Although both of the top Democratic candidates have talked about taking power away from entrenched interests, Obama has made that appeal more central to his candidacy. “We’ve got to reduce the power of lobbyists and special interests,” he said Friday.

Their years inside the corridors of power notwithstanding, both Obama and Clinton worked hard in their appearances here to demonstrate that they didn’t just hear people’s economic worries, they had been there themselves.

Clinton told how she had worked at least part time since she was 13, and how she needed a loan and a part-time job to pay for law school. Obama reminisced about the early years of his marriage, when he and his wife juggled college loans, law school loans and a mortgage.

“At the end of the month, because of those debts, we didn’t have a lot left over,” Obama said. “If we had gotten seriously sick where our coverage hadn’t been enough, if I had to stop working for a while because of illness, we didn’t have a cushion.”

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james.rainey@latimes.com

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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Times researcher Nona Yates in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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