YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama offered a rousing rebuttal yesterday to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's suggestion that his campaign represents eloquence without substance, as he campaigned across eastern Ohio two weeks before the state's crucial Democratic primary.
"Obama can talk good; he is inspiring, but he doesn't have enough specifics," Mr. Obama said, paraphrasing the Clinton criticisms before a Youngstown State University crowd that cheered his counter-argument.
"Of course, this argument ignores the fact that, for 20 years, I've been about the business of change," he said, citing time he spent as a Chicago community organizer and Illinois state senator before moving to Washington as a U.S. senator.
"Just to be clear, speeches don't put food on the table," he said, using words Mrs. Clinton offered last week in an appearance at a nearby auto plant. "But the only way we're going to bring about change is if all of you get excited about change.
"One thing I do say about Senator Clinton," he continued. "She says speeches don't put food on the table. Well, NAFTA didn't put food on the table either, so I'm happy to have that discussion."
Mr. Obama has repeatedly used the North American Free Trade Agreement enacted under former President Bill Clinton, the senator's husband, as a club against his rival. In her appearance at a GM plant last week, Mrs. Clinton defended herself against an Obama direct-mail ad emphasizing the NAFTA attack. She now calls for "a time out on trade" to assess the impact of that and other free-trade pacts.
Turning to Mrs. Clinton's argument that she is more experienced and tested against likely Republican attacks, Mr. Obama said -- to the delight of nearly 7,000 in the school's basketball arena -- "I've got to explain to them: I'm skinny, but I'm tough. ... I'm from Chicago. We know how to play politics in Chicago."
Mr. Obama pitched jobs and working-class issues during a campaign day that began with a tour of RTI International Metals Inc., a titanium plant in Niles, Ohio. He used the plant visit to showcase a package of policies that he said would encourage manufacturers and other firms to maintain jobs in the United States, rather than shipping them overseas. The Illinois senator said he would curb tax incentives for multinational firms' foreign operations, while reducing taxes on firms that maintain employment in the Untied States.
Asked after the tour how he would change the trade accords he has frequently criticized, Mr. Obama said: "I would seek to add amendments to the existing trade deals that ensured high labor standards, high environmental standards and safety standards. ... I also think that it's important for us to enforce the trade laws that we have. There are too many countries that are still setting up non-tariff barriers for U.S. goods going into those countries, and we want reciprocity as a basis for good trade relations."
The RTI plant provides titanium products primarily for aerospace and military uses, an executive explained to the press pool that accompanied Mr. Obama on his tour. Business at the company, whose CEO is Dawne S. Hickton of Pittsburgh, is relatively strong, in contrast to the many manufacturing plants in the region that have shed jobs in recent years.
During the visit, the candidate spoke with members of the United Steelworkers, a union that had supported former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards before he withdrew from the Democratic race.
Mr. Obama spoke on the eve of contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii that will test whether his campaign can extend an eight-state winning streak. His native Hawaii seemed a gimme, while Wisconsin appeared to be more competitive.
The consensus of recent surveys in Wisconsin have shown Mr. Obama with a narrow lead, although one new poll showed Mrs. Clinton in first place. An aggregation of polls on the Web site Pollster.com depicts Mr. Obama as the leader, 49 percent to 43 percent. Yet an American Research Group survey of Wisconsin, released yesterday, showed just the opposite standings: 49 percent for Mrs. Clinton to his 43 percent.
But well before the polls opened in today's primary, both Democratic campaigns were looking ahead to the big-state battles March 4 in both Ohio and Texas. Mrs. Clinton was the early favorite in both, and she needs to win both, along with Pennsylvania on April 22, to approach parity with her rival in elected delegates.
Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to return to Ohio today, with stops in Cleveland and Youngstown. Mr. Obama was on his way back to Wisconsin, but was to travel to Texas later on this next election day of their marathon battle for the nomination.
Mr. Obama's Youngstown appearance came on a day when the Clinton campaign was pressing a charge of plagiarism against him, pointing to remarks he made over the weekend that closely echoed a previous speech by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a supporter of his campaign. Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's press secretary, made the accusation in a conference call with reporters.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Obama conceded that he should have credited the reference, but dismissed the plagiarism charge, saying the accusation "is carrying it a bit far. I'm happy to give credit. ... I was on the stump. I should have given credit," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Patrick similarly shrugged off the incident in an interview with the New York Times yesterday.
"He [Mr. Patrick] has occasionally used lines of mine; I have occasionally used some words of his," Mr. Obama said after his titanium plant tour. "I know Senator Clinton has used words of mine as well. I don't think that is something that workers here are concerned about."
The Clinton campaign has harried their opponent with a series of charges in recent days. Over the weekend, Mr. Wolfson joined Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain in criticizing the Obama camp for a suggestion that it might not take advantage of public financing in the general election.
The Clinton campaign has essentially the same position, but Mr. Wolfson said the fact that the Obama campaign had previously suggested it would accept the federal money was evidence of a pattern of shifting positions.
In pressing the charge that Mr. Obama had appropriated Mr. Patrick's words, the Clinton campaign steered reporters to a YouTube video of the speeches.
Referring to his foe in the Massachusetts governor's race he eventually won, Mr. Patrick said: "[H]er dismissive point -- and I hear it a lot from her staff -- is that all I have to offer is words, just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words! Just words! 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words! 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' Just words! 'I have a dream.' Just words!"
At a Wisconsin Democratic Party dinner Saturday, Mr. Obama said: "Don't tell me words don't matter! 'I have a dream.' Just words! 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words! 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words! Just speeches!"
In the back-and-forth over the incident, the Obama camp responded by supplying reporters with instances in which Mrs. Clinton used phrases associated with other candidates -- a common occurrence in a Democratic campaign in which the candidates' messages have often converged and overlapped.
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.