HARRISBURG -- With polls showing the economy is the biggest worry -- by far -- among Pennsylvania voters, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday brought her presidential primary-season barnstorming tour to a tiny diner in tiny Swatara, Dauphin County.
Talk at the Capitol Diner with a pre-selected group of Harrisburg-area voters revolved around health care, the high cost of college, energy prices and other budget issues hitting middle-class America.
Sipping tea, the Democrat responded to questions with details of her tax-relief proposals, while also taking shots at President Bush and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"The best I could determine, [Mr. McCain's economic] plan would be to not have a plan," she said to laughter in the diner crowd. "If he got the 3 a.m. call on the economy, he would just let the phone ring and ring and ring."
Her competitor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, in Lancaster, also critiqued Mr. McCain, saying his campaign was an effort to launch a third Bush term.
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At a subsequent news conference, Mr. Obama defended his repeated references to Mr. McCain's willingness to keep troops in Iraq for 100 years. The Republican has argued that Democrats -- including Mr. Obama -- have unfairly caricatured his comment, which, he said, alluded to a sustained presence on the model of post-World War II troop commitments to Europe or to South Korea after that conflict.
"I don't think it's unfair at all," Mr. Obama said. "John McCain -- I mean, we can run the YouTube spot -- has said that we will stay there as long as it takes. And if it takes another 100 years, he's up for that commitment, and that implies that there is some criteria by which we would understand how long it takes."
Mr. Obama began his day with a rally-town meeting on the Lancaster campus of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, where he was applauded and questioned by an enthusiastic crowd of about 2,000.
Near the end of his remarks, he repeated his observation that the long primary competition, a target of increasing criticism and concern by some Democratic voices, would actually be a good thing for the party and its nominee because of the enthusiasm and engagement it has promoted.
Mr. Obama later headed to a rally in Allentown. Today, he is to appear in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, home base of his chief Pennsylvania ally, Sen. Bob Casey.
Mrs. Clinton laid out her plans for addressing the nationwide mortgage and credit crisis a week ago in Philadelphia, calling for $30 billion in federal aid to local governments, naming a panel of financial experts to survey the crisis and supporting legislation to expand federal power over the resale of troubled mortgages. She said they were more aggressive answers than those offered yesterday by Mr. Bush's Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson.
"After years of a wait-and-don't-see approach to the regulatory failures that led to the housing and credit crises, they've announced a plan that comes late and falls short," she said during remarks at the start of her one-hour diner talk. "No amount of rearranging the deck chairs can hide the fact that our housing and our credit markets are in crisis, and they're sinking deeper every day. Every day we fail to take aggressive action is a day lost."
Reiterating previously announced proposals, she pledged yesterday: tax credits of as much as $3,000 for those taking care of elderly parents; matching retirement savings dollar-for-dollar for married couples earning less than $60,000; raising the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011; and doubling federal tax credits for college expenses. To pay for it all, she said she would end Mr. Bush's tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy.
Among those chosen to sit down and talk with Mrs. Clinton was Jody Rebarchek, a married mother of three just returned to the work force to help pay college costs for her daughter. She mentioned a need to get more young women, like her eldest daughter, interested in math and science careers.
That spurred the candidate to say: "I know what it's like to be in one of those fields. We need more women who are breaking those barriers down."
Mrs. Clinton also met briefly with truckers protesting high fuel prices, and invited two into the diner. Later, more than a thousand supporters cheered her in the warehouse wind-turbine manufacturer Gamesa Corp. in Fairless Hills, Bucks County. She was introduced by Gov. Ed Rendell, who has energetically boosted her campaign since endorsing her earlier this year.
Mr. Obama was also asked yesterday about the gas-price plaints those truckers cited to Mrs. Clinton. He referred questions about state fuel taxes to "my good friend, Governor Rendell," an ironic reference to his rival's chief promoter in the state.
"But when it comes [to] a federal energy policy," Mr. Obama said, "I think that I would be dishonest if I said we've got a lot of short-term answers to bringing down gas prices. I don't think we do.
"I think we can look at going after windfall profits in a serious way and improve refinery capacity in this country. But the long-term answers are going to be these right here -- you know, biodiesel, biofuels, investing in more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. That's going to be the solution to reduce demand and, as a consequence of a reduction in demand, what we're going to end up seeing is lower prices."
Timothy McNulty can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562. Mr. O'Toole reported from Lancaster and Fairless Hills, Pa.