Obama Out to Prove Blue Collar Authenticity

In Wilmington, N.C., this afternoon, fighting the perception pushed by his opponents that he's an elitist, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., steered clear of his rock-star reception and soaring oratory about changing the world, and told his personal tale in a modest town hall meeting

"I was raised by a single mom ... she had me when she was a teenager," he said, sharing details about his grandfather, a World War II veteran who went to college on the GI Bill, and about his humble early years with his mother.

"There were scholarships so that she could send her son and her daughter to some of the finest schools in the world, even though there were times when she was on food stamps," he said.


Far from his fancy friends, such as Oprah Winfrey, and his more controversial ones, like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama said he understands what small town Americans want and believe.

"All they hope is that there's a handle there. That they can get a handle on moving up if they work hard, will find a job that pays a living wage. ... If they work hard, they're gonna be able to retire with some dignity and respect. That's why I love this country," the presidential candidate said.

It is part of a new phase of the Obama campaign to re-introduce himself as someone who doesn't just understand the working class, but is of it.

"Barack Obama's great strength has always been that he seems like he is above politics. It turns out that, lately, maybe he has been a little too above politics," Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said.

In 1992, Bill Clinton faced a similar challenge with voters thinking he was a child of privilege. He re-introduced himself with his humble beginnings as the son of a single mom.

So, for Obama, cameras followed him to church Sunday. On Saturday in Indiana, where basketball is another form of religion, he shot hoops.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over the weekend, twice called Obama "out of touch" and said he was "insensitive" to the economic issues in America, adding that Obama did not support a gas tax holiday he proposed because "[o]bviously Sen. Obama does not understand that this would be a nice thing for Americans."

Obama rejected McCain's criticism today.

"He had the gall yesterday to tell me that obviously, because I didn't agree with his plan, I must not be sympathetic to poor people," Obama said.

McCain's attack was "typical of how Washington works," he said, then pointed out that the Arizona senator was "proposing hundreds of billions of dollars of more tax breaks for corporate interests to the wealthiest Americans.

"This election is not about me. It's not about Sen. [Hillary] Clinton. It's not about John McCain. It's about you. It's about your struggles, your hopes, your dreams," Obama reminded voters as he told stories about his grandparents struggling through the Great Depression.

Some Democrats caution that Obama's giving his autobiography is a good first step, but it's just a first step.

Democratic activist Steve Jarding, who specializes in rural and Southern voters, suggested Obama needs to propose detailed plans to help rural and small town America.

"It can't just be 'I understand there's problems and I'm going to offer hope to everybody,'" Jarding said. "It's a great platform in and of itself, but I think in rural America, where people have been hurting more than any parts of the country, you've got to do more."

Wright, of course, isn't helping, anyway, with a series of media appearances in which he used shocking and provocative language. Obama continued to distance himself from his former pastor today.

"He's obviously free to speak his mind, but I just want to emphasize he is my former pastor," Obama said. "Many of the statements he made, both to trigger this initial controversy, and that he's made over the last couple days are not statements that I heard him make previously. They don't represent my views and they don't represent what this campaign is about. But he's obviously free to make those statements."

While answering questions at the National Press Club today, Wright suggested that Obama was distancing himself from the pastor for political reasons.

"If Obama did not say what he said, he wouldn't get elected," Wright said. "I do what pastors do; he does what politicians do."

Sunlen Miller and Nitya Venkataraman contributed to this report.