Politics & Government

Obama turns election rally in Florida into summit on jobs

LAKE WORTH, Fla. — Campaigning in a state hit hard by job losses and the mortgage crisis, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama started his second day of courting Florida voters with a sober summit focused on boosting jobs and capping the rising costs of healthcare.

''A crisis like this calls for the best ideas, the brightest minds, the most innovative solutions from every corner of this country,'' said Obama, who invited the Democratic governors of four key election states to share a stage with him, along with a small business owner from Miami, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and the CEO of Internet giant Google.

The crowd, which began lining up outside the gym at Palm Beach Community College before dawn, had clearly been expecting a more raucous event. Before Obama took to the stage, they chanted his name and stomped their feet in the bleachers.

But Obama, whom some polls show has the edge among voters when it comes to handling the economy, tamped down expectations as soon as he took the stage.

''This is not one of our usual rallies. We're going to have one of those in Miami,'' he said as the crowd roared. "This is a more serious discussion about the economy. This is a serious conversation we want to have.''

Seated on a stage with the governors of Michigan, Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado, Obama led a conversation about economic conditions in the states, noting ``these leaders need and deserve a partner in the White House.''

He promised as president to invest in infrastructure and renewable energy and accused President Bush and Republican rival John McCain of ignoring the crisis until it ballooned out of control.

''While President Bush and Senator McCain were ready to move heaven and Earth to address the crisis on Wall Street, President Bush has failed to address the crisis on Main Street -- and Senator McCain has failed to fully acknowledge it,'' Obama said. "Instead of common sense solutions, month after month, they've offered little more than willful ignorance, wishful thinking and outdated ideology.''

Participants included Victoria Villalba, the president and owner of Miami's Victoria and Associates Career Services, who charmed the crowd and earned a round of applause when she noted, ''I'm a small business owner and I'm not Joe the Plumber!'' -- a reference to the Ohio man who confronted Obama about his economic plan and has become John McCain's rallying cry to attempt to paint Obama as someone who will raise taxes.

Villalba, who sat next to Obama on stage, said she picks up the entire cost of her employees' healthcare plans and is worried about the rising costs. She showed the crowd several of her employees' statements, including a 61-year-old whose health insurance runs $1,200 a month.

''I haven't been dreaming in the last year,'' she said. "I sit up at night, not able to sleep, worried and concerned for my employees.''

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Graholm and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland noted they represent Rust Belt states that have been hammered by the economy, but Obama took pains to note that Florida — the biggest battleground state he's hoping to wrest from Republicans — has also seen its share of woe. He said the state has the second highest foreclosure rate in the country, ''lost nearly 11,000 jobs in September alone'' and is one of 21 states facing a budget shortfall.

Republicans, who claim Obama's policies will raise taxes, mocked the campaign's ''jobs summit'' as Obama's "spending summit.''

''When Americans are hurting, Barack Obama's plan to take more and more money from pocketbooks and hand it over to mismanaged government budgets is not the solution -- it's the problem,'' said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "During the last eight years, the federal budget has grown by 40 percent and the American people have seen how well that kind of change works -- yet Barack Obama is simply offering more of the same.''

Obama offered some pushback to McCain on his tax stance, saying that McCain had been misrepresenting his plans.

''He's a little confused. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt,'' Obama said as the crowd laughed. "Maybe he just hasn't read it. . . . He says I'm going to take money away from Joe the plumber. Joe's going to get a tax cut under my plan.''

Lines began forming at the college before dawn -- and among those eager for a glimpse of Obama was Jackie Roberts, a Delray Beach Republican who said she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to secure a spot in the gymnasium.

''Our country has been run off into the ditch by Republicans,'' said Roberts, noting that her husband was recently laid off from his county job and most of her friends are anxious about keeping their own. ``We're in a very sad situation and Obama has struck me as level-headed and the man we need.''

Speakers at the event urged the crowd to vote early. Obama himself will headline an early voting rally Tuesday night at Bicentennial Park in Miami with his wife, Michelle, who started the day at another early vote rally in Pensacola.

The campaign also planned to dispatch New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- the only Hispanic governor in the U.S. -- to an early voting rally in Immokalee and a community gathering in Charlotte County.

Obama's campaign announced late Monday that he'll leave the campaign trail Thursday to fly to Hawaii to visit his gravely ill grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whom he credits with raising him.

He is expected to return to full-time campaigning Saturday, likely in a western state.

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