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The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram - Obama Turns Focus on Plight of Middle Class

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By Emily Banks

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama touched on nearly all the key issues in the upcoming presidential election - the economy, energy, education, health care, national security and Iraq - during his stop in Eau Claire Sunday, but he focused most of his 30-minute speech on the troubles faced by the working class.

Times are tough, he said, to about 300 people who were invited to the "BBQ with Barack Obama" at Eau Claire's Rod and Gun Park.

"I don't need to tell you that, 'cause you're living it," the Illinois senator said, adding that the average family income has decreased $1,000 under President Bush and families have been pushed to their limits financially.

"It becomes hard to cut back when you've got to drive 50 miles to your job. ... It becomes hard to cut back when you're already short when it comes to paying for home heating oil in the middle of the winter," Obama said.

If the economy continues as it's been, "we may be passing off an America to the next generation that's a little poorer, a little meaner than the America we inherited from our parents and our grandparents. That is un-American."

Obama also responded to recent comments by his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, about the economy. He criticized the Republican presidential candidate for not knowing how many homes he has and for defining wealthy as someone who has $5 million. According to that logic, Obama said someone with $1 million must then qualify for food stamps.

He used McCain's comments as a chance to highlight how each candidate related to the middle class.

Obama said he's had to worry about student loans, child care and saving for his children's college tuition. People should say, "He's like us," Obama said of himself.

"John McCain has a compelling bio," Obama said, including "brave and distinguished service for this country, and (he) deserves enormous respect for that. And I have respect for John McCain's service, but I don't have respect for his policies."

Electing McCain would mean choosing the same attitude and "same out-of-touch policies" as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Obama said.

In the 19 months of campaigning, Obama said he has learned the country is "big and beautiful" and called Americans "decent, generous, hardworking and self-reliant."

"For all the differences you hear about ... and all the conflict, it turns out people have common values," he said, listing honesty and the dignity of work.

Obama also outlined an energy plan that proposes domestic production of oil and expanding alternative forms of energy, including solar, wind and biodiesel.

"We can't drill our way out of this problem," he said.

A plan to decrease oil consumption in 10 years should be established, he said.

Obama used the war in Iraq as another talking point for the economy - but ended up apologizing for his language in front of the Sunday crowd.

"If we can spend $10 billion to $12 billion a month in Iraq, we sure as hell can pay $10 billion to $12 billion right here in the United States of America putting people back to work," he said, then briefly paused. "I apologize. I usually say 'heck,' especially after church. That sort of slipped out. Sorry, kids."

National security efforts should be focused on terrorists in Afghanistan instead of Iraq, he said.

He also said he would provide tax cuts to 95 percent of the population; lower premiums on health insurance, offer health insurance at the same price as that paid by government employees and subsidize it for people who couldn't afford that; change No Child Left Behind "so teachers aren't teaching to tests" and make college affordable.

Eau Claire was Obama's first solo stop after announcing his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware; it's among a tour of states planned as Obama heads to the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week, where Biden will rejoin the campaign. This was Obama's second visit to Eau Claire in six months. Gov. Jim Doyle and U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold spoke in support of Obama at Sunday's event.

Steve Rasmus, 63, a retired real estate broker from Chippewa Falls, said he found Obama very reassuring and liked that he would pull the troops out of Iraq, focusing more on terrorist leaders in Afghanistan.

"I think he has good economic plans," Rasmus said. "Obviously, we are in far worse shape internationally than we were eight years ago, and McCain isn't going to change that."

But McCain supporters said Obama still lacks the experience to lead the country.

Regional McCain spokesperson Leah Yoon said even Biden has said Obama isn't ready to be president.

Obama's tax plan and his refusal to acknowledge the success of the troop surge in Iraq are examples of why he's not ready to lead, Yoon said.

Three McCain supporters, including former state Sen. Dave Zien, stood Sunday near the entrance to Rod and Gun Park holding signs in support of the Republican presidential candidate. Yoon said the group gathered to "let folks know they feel the Obama-Biden ticket is proof Obama's not ready to lead."

McCain also has campaigned in Wisconsin multiple times, including a July stop in Racine.

"His commitment to winning the state of Wisconsin is solid," Yoon said.

McCain will be in St. Paul next week for the Republican National Convention.

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