Clinton reacts to loss with a salvo at Obama

THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Fresh off her ninth straight loss of the primary season, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last night rallied supporters with a lacerating speech that depicted Sen. Barack Obama as a political amateur, skilled in oratory but lacking in substance.

"We can't just have speeches. We've got to have solutions. While words matter, the best words in the world aren't enough unless we match them with actions," Mrs. Clinton told a crowd of 2,000 packed in a high school gymnasium in this Rust Belt city.

In her half hour speech, Mrs. Clinton made no mention of Mr Obama's victory in yesterday's primary in Wisconsin -- a state whose electorate in many ways mirrors Ohio's. A campaign aide said simply that she plans to "move on."

Tomorrow, she is traveling to New York for a major policy address at Hunter College before moving on to Texas, her campaign said. For the duration of the Ohio campaign she intends to focus on her economic message and her plan to seek drastic revisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mrs. Clinton, who took the stage 30 minutes after her scheduled start, keyed directly on Mr. Obama and on the likely Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Mr. McCain, she said, "is willing to continue the war in Iraq for 100 years -- I will start bringing our troops home in 60 days."

The increasingly caustic nature of the Clinton-Obama competition, with accusations ranging from delegate-poaching to plagiarism, was much on display.

"Both Sen. Obama and I would make history. But only one of us is ready on Day One to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans," Mrs. Clinton said.

In yet another swipe at Mr. Obama's reputation as a stellar campaign speaker, Mrs. Clinton said the election is "about picking a president who relies not just on words -- but on work, hard work, to get America back to work. Someone who's not just in the speeches business -- but who will get America back in the solutions business."

The Obama campaign responded even before she started speaking. "The choice in this election is between more of the same divisive, say-or-do-anything-to-win politics of the past and real change that we can believe in," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

On a night the Clinton campaign clearly intended to ramp up its attacks, local introductory speakers included R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists. Mr. Buffenbarger spent 15 minutes hurling invective at Mr. Obama, mocking his speaking skills, political record and even his mannerisms.

"Watch the junior senator from Illinois very carefully," Mr. Buffenbarger said. "He cocks his head, then turns his ear so he can hear the roar of adoring crowd. It's a trained thespian's move.

"We took a closer look at this wunderkind and we saw two basic positions -- nose in the air and when anyone throws a punch, he rushes away. Change? Yes we can? Give me a break."

Mr. Buffenbarger went on to deride what he called "Prius-driving, latte-drinking" Obama supporters.

Mrs. Clinton's rhetoric was a good fit with some in the crowd.

A trio of women who met on the Internet via the Web site Facebook drove in from across the state line in Mercer County to hoist signs labeling the Illinois senator "NoBama," telling him "Keep Your Change, We Want Hillary's Dollar."

"I've just been a supporter of hers since Bill Clinton," said Farrah Multari, of Sharpsville.

"She wrote so much of his legislation, so she's already proven," added Holly Vuich, of Hermitage.

After a losing streak that forced Mrs. Clinton to lend her own campaign $5 million, her backers are looking for a place to turn things around. Mrs. Vuich and Mrs. Multari had a theory.

"Ohio," said Mrs. Multari.

"Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas," added Mrs. Vuich.

Pennsylvania is more two months away and Texas is close, but Ohio, with its mix of Rust Belt industries, Midwest farmlands and blue-collar ethnics, would seem custom-fitted to Mrs. Clinton. Polls have shown her with a double-digit lead in the state, while Mr. Obama posted below 20 percent for most of the winter.

Paul Allen Beck, head of the political science department at Ohio State University, said he believes Mr. Obama is picking up momentum not because the two candidates differ significantly, but because they are so similar that voters are making a deliberate calculation as to which one can win in November.

"I would bet there are plenty of Ohio voters who are going through exactly that kind of calculation right now," Mr. Beck said.

One of them was Matthew Vadas, a self-confessed political junkie who came in from Cortland, a Youngstown suburb, to stand in the cold outside the Chaney High School gym for a chance to hear Mrs. Clinton.

"I'm undecided," Mr. Vadas said. "I really haven't researched them closely enough yet."

Such indecision is all the more poignant for Mr. Vadas because he works for a so-called "superdelegate" -- U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, the local congressman, whose own office has been peppered with phone calls from both campaigns beseeching his vote.

Other voters here are undecided and determined to stay that way. As more than a thousand supporters and curious lined up in the freezing dark outside the school, Terry Esarco was a half mile away at the Paprika Cafe, finishing a plate of pierogies when a friend, sporting an anti-Bush button, rushed in to urge him to hurry.

"They're only going to let a thousand in and then they're going to turn people away. The gym is too small," she said.

"Go ahead. I'm not going to vote for either of them anyway," Mr. Esarco said, returning to his plate.

"She crafted NAFTA with her husband," Mr. Esarco growled. "She voted for the war and the Patriot Act."

Mr. Esarco, who said he spent 20 years working in a bakery because he needed the health insurance, is retiring soon and wants to become a substitute teacher in the city schools. To him, Mrs. Clinton's policies bear some of the blame for the perennially depressed economy of the Mahoning Valley. Mr. Obama, he said, is an untested neophyte.

"He's only been in the Senate what -- two years?" said Mr. Esarco.

He returned to his plate and left the Ohio Primary to his shivering friend.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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