GREENSBURG, Pa. — When people in this worn-looking city near Pittsburgh lament how the sagging economy is slowly crushing them, some are also quick to add how much Hillary Clinton could help them.
As people gathered Tuesday to hear the New York senator address them in a college gym here, they matter-of-factly described the changes in their lives as food and energy prices have risen and job prospects have sunk.
"I eat hamburger now, not steak," said Susan Indof, a Smithton cashier.
Mary Beck, a nursing home laundry worker, said the price of gasoline is so high that she does her errands on her way home from work so she won't have to go out again in the evening and burn more fuel.
Clinton spent an hour and 15 minutes in the gym of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg explaining her ideas about the economy, including a new initiative aimed at helping families save for retirement, and she was warmly received by about 1,000 people.
But as cozy as that was, Clinton got pointed reminders before and after the rally that she still faces a tough road as she tries to overtake Democratic front-runner Barack Obama.
Earlier Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Clinton had broken her silence on the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor. Wright's controversial comments about race spurred Obama's speech last week on race relations, and Clinton's campaign had refrained from making any critical comments.
"He would not have been my pastor," Clinton said in an interview published Tuesday in the Tribune-Review. "You don't choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend."
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Clinton repeated the statement and was asked whether it was a not-so-subtle dig at Obama.
"I said what I would do, and I answered the question," Clinton said, refusing to elaborate.
The Obama campaign quickly fired back.
"If Senator Clinton had decided that she now wants to play politics with this issue, that's her disappointing choice," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton, "but it won't do anything to help us solve the larger challenges facing this country."
Clinton tried hard Tuesday to keep the focus on her economic initiatives. She considers places such as Greensburg full of friendly voters. In other industrial states such as nearby Ohio, she's done well with white, working-class voters, particularly older ones.
Greensburg has Clinton's kind of demographics — median family income is $41,000. The population is about 94 percent white. It's a popular Democratic stop — both John Kerry and John Edwards visited in 2004, and Bill Clinton paid a visit while he was president.
Tuesday, Hillary Clinton aimed her pitch squarely at diehard Democrats, appearing on stage with Sherry and Terry Donato of Latrobe. Terry is a self-employed truck driver, and Sherry works two jobs.
Clinton presented herself as one of them, a daughter of the working class.
"My father was self-employed. He had to work very hard," Clinton said. "Often there were no employees other than my father, my brothers, my mother and me. It was challenging."
The Donatos said that times keep getting harder.
"We look at each other. We look at the checkbook and we see dwindling numbers," Sherry Donato said. "We don't know where we're going from here."
Clinton vowed to push an "American Retirement Accounts" plan that would offer families up to $1,000 in tax cuts if they saved certain amounts. The initiative, she estimated, could help 3.4 million Pennsylvania families.
"To encourage working families and middle class families to save, we're going to provide incentives," she said. "It should not take a PhD to plan for retirement."
The crowd wasn't focusing on the details, and they weren't talking much about all the media eruptions of recent days over race or Clinton's misstatement about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia a dozen years ago.
They had nothing bad to say about Obama, and Clinton didn't mention him when she spoke, other than to remind the crowd, "it's not enough to make a speech. That's just words." The audience jumped to its feet and cheered.
They were more eager before and after her appearance about the kinship they feel with the woman who's been in the public eye for 16 years, the woman who's married to a president that many of them adored.
Roy Wertz, a retired small-machine shop owner from Trafford, recalled how he'd saved for retirement and how "my big thing was to travel around the country."
Instead, he said, "I can't afford it. I just do fewer things."
But does he think Hillary Clinton could get him on the road?
"I'm not saying she's that much better than the others," Wertz said, "but I just know more about her, and you tend to go with what you know."
ON THE WEB
Clinton's Tuesday comments on Rev. Wright
Clinton's family savings plan.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008