Clinton: Rival Obama Is a 'Blank Screen'

Clinton unveils anti-poverty plan in Appalachia; every vote counts March 4.

Feb. 29, 2008 — -- It's doubtful that the Clinton road map to the presidency included a pit stop in Pomeroy, Ohio, a small town nestled in the Appalachian foothills.

In the entire county, there are only 2,500 registered Democratic voters.

But now that the race for the nomination has come down to Ohio and Texas, every single vote counts.

With so much at stake, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton spent the morning in Bryan Holman's trailer. Three generations of this Ohio family gathered to welcome Clinton, her daughter, Chelsea, and the state's popular governor, Ted Strickland, who has endorsed Clinton for president.

Even though there may only be a few possible votes up for grabs in this group, Clinton relishes the chance to talk concretely about the real problems in their lives — a lack of affordable health insurance, skyrocketing gas prices and a tough job market.

"Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden sat down for an exclusive interview with Clinton in Ohio to discuss her anti-poverty policy and the tightening race for the nomination.

Continuing the 'War on Poverty'

Appalachian Ohio is a place where poverty blankets the air, at nearly twice the national average. It's the same region where more than 40 years ago, President Johnson declared his so-called 'War on Poverty."

That is why Clinton focused her campaigning here on childhood poverty, unveiling her own anti-poverty plan.

"Well, I'm focusing in particular on child poverty, because I think it's a disgrace that we have so many poor children," she said. "And I would like to see us end childhood hunger by 2012, and I'd like to see us cut childhood poverty in half by 2020."

She says the country can reach these goals by prioritizing how money is spent in Washington. "You know, there is so much waste and giveaways that go to people who are wealthy and well-connected or are a result of the government, frankly, not being held accountable and being very efficient."

About 45 minutes down the road from Pomeroy, in Gallia County, Clinton was greeted like a rock star by patrons at a Bob Evans Restaurant. Going behind the front counter of the restaurant, she said jokingly, "I was going to take a few orders in case this other endeavor doesn't work out."

A 'Hectic and Grueling' Campaign

"Nightline" asked the senator how she was faring during a tough campaign.

"I'm having a terrific time. I mean, from the outside, campaigns look as hectic and grueling as they are. But, on the inside, it's a really intimate experience in a lot of ways," she said. "You feel like you're invited into people's lives in a way that is very precious to me."

The race for the nomination is tightening. Just three months ago, ABC News polls indicated Clinton leading party rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama by 30 points. It's now neck and neck.

Clinton says she stays upbeat. "Well, I never believed those polls," she said. "I don't pay attention to polls.  I mean, I try very hard to stay focused on what I'm touching and I'm feeling and I'm learning, because I have found, over many years, that that gives me a better sense."

By 2 p.m., the campaign had arrived in Hanging Rock.  Unlike the stadium events, where Obama thrives, Clinton prefers smaller, more intimate settings. That is when her voice gets softer and her message more personal.

She spoke to parents and then handed out snacks to children in a Head Start classroom, comfortable, she says, as head of the class, but not head of the pack.

Because as a front-runner, "you are the big target," she said. "I'm still being treated like that — in terms of people coming after me."

Rival Barack Obama Is a 'Blank Screen'

Whether Clinton will get to implement any of her ideas as president is far from clear. With Clinton losing 11 contests in a row, there has been a growing number of Democratic voices making her task even harder.

On Thursday, superdelegate Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a highly respected civil rights leader and longtime friend of the Clintons, announced he would switch his support to Obama.

"Well, I understand the pressure he's under. It's been very intense. And I respect him," Clinton said. "I consider him a friend. I told him that when I spoke with him."

Does Clinton buy into the idea of Obama as a phenomenon, appealing only to ill-informed voters?

"Well, I wouldn't put it that way," she said. "I think the best description, actually, is in Barack's own book, the last book he wrote, 'Audacity of Hope,' where he said that he's a blank screen. And people of widely differing views project what they want to believe onto him. And then he went on to say, 'I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them.'"

Does Clinton think that a woman running with Obama's qualifications would have been laughed out of the race at the beginning?

"Well, I know that people have said that. He was in the state Senate, what, three years ago, four years ago? It's hard to know exactly what his positions are because they have changed rather rapidly in that four-year period. But there is something very appealing, and people have a right to vote for whomever they want."

Looking Ahead to Ohio and Texas

Many thought the race would be decided by Super Tuesday. Now it all comes down to the primaries in Texas and Ohio. Even Bill Clinton has admitted they are must-wins for his wife.

Clinton is optimistic about those next set of contests. "It is not over yet. You know, Tuesday is a really important election. And we're going to see what the voters think."

And the message she says she hears from her friends and supporters is clear: "Don't give up.  Don't give up.  I'm with you.  Stay in this."

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