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In Ind., Obama turns focus on Midwestern roots

Touts family ties to connect with working class

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his two daughters Malia, 9, (left), and Sasha, 6, listened to his wife Michelle introduce him yesterday at a family picnic in Fort Wayne, Ind. Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his two daughters Malia, 9, (left), and Sasha, 6, listened to his wife Michelle introduce him yesterday at a family picnic in Fort Wayne, Ind. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / May 5, 2008

FORT WAYNE, Ind. - Barack Obama, who for much of the presidential campaign has drawn attention to his unusual origins, offered himself up yesterday to Indiana voters as a simple Midwestern family man who could relate to their economic challenges based on his own experience.

"I know that story," a shirt-sleeved Obama said, speaking in the round at a late-afternoon picnic where he was joined by his wife and two daughters. "I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents who grew up in the Great Depression."

Entering tomorrow's primaries for the first time defensive about his identity - against charges that he is an elitist, distant from everyday concerns - Obama's campaign is placing new attention on some overlooked biographical points.

"The bio is our central focus," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. "The bio is valuable because he is not a faux advocate for working folks."

The North Carolina and Indiana primaries follow Ohio and Pennsylvania contests in which Obama struggled to win over older, working-class whites. His campaign has responded to the reemergence of his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - and a renewed conversation about Obama's race and patriotism - with a new introduction of the candidate to voters.

"We didn't recognize, I think, the caricature that's been painted of us over the last couple of weeks," Obama said Friday, citing the image of "elitist, intellectual pointy-head types" at an Indianapolis press conference. "The fact is our lives, if you look back over the last two decades, more closely approximate the lives of the average voters than any other candidate."

Obama's campaign has been working to shrink its larger-than-life figurehead to a scale it views as necessary to connect with working-class voters.

At the start of his unsuccessful Pennsylvania campaign, Obama took off on a six-day bus tour designed to showcase his comfort with blue-collar tastes, with stops for bowling, chili dogs, and beers. In Indiana, Obama has gone further, committing himself to delivering short speeches before small groups that add some biographical heft to the man-of-the-people imagery.

"I know there's been a lot of discussion about me and my values and about my ideals and I try to explain to people, 'If you want to know me, I was raised by a single mom, my father left when I was 2,' " Obama said in Noblesville, Ind., on Saturday.

While Obama's self-introduction in his famous 2004 Democratic convention speech also began with his parents, he told it then as a serendipitous romance whose unlikely participants - a Kenyan black man and Kansan white woman - spawned a "skinny kid with a funny name" uniquely able to bring people together.

Having written a memoir, "Dreams from My Father," about the search for his father's Kenyan relatives, Obama's focus in recent days turned to the roots of his mother, Ann Dunham. Out is the paternal grandfather who cooked for the British as a domestic servant. In is the one who enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor and served under General George S. Patton in Europe. (He married the woman Obama described last month as a "typical white person.")

On Saturday, Obama made his first visit to an Indiana house built by a great-great-great-grandfather for a potluck dinner with neighbors. Obama's local patrimony was recently uncovered by campaign researchers, an aide said, and the candidate was uncharacteristically short on words about it.

"Look at this: the Dunham, uh . . ." he said, bounding off his bus toward the white clapboard house. After a long silence, he described it as a homestead.

Obama's attention to the less exotic component of his biracial makeup appealed to Irene Evans, who watched him from a picnic blanket in Noblesville. "I think white people can identify with the white background of his family," said Evans, 60, a social worker from Indianapolis who is white. Obama has used his new biographical initiative to reassert his patriotism. "My belief in America," said Obama, is grounded in the support his mother's family received from federal programs, such as the GI Bill, Federal Housing Authority loans, and food stamps. He did not mention the Kennedy-era government scholarship that Obama has said was responsible for his "very existence," by bringing his father to the United States as a foreign student.

"When I met my wife, it turned out she had the same story," Obama said Friday. Economic hardship is "part of what we've been," he said, citing their challenges as a couple paying for day care, gas, and student loans.

Michelle Obama described her husband as an everyman, invoking his recently earned solvency as a credential.

"When was the last time we had a president of the United States who was just a few years out of debt?" she said Friday in Durham, N.C. "You tell me whether there were silver spoons. You tell me where there was the elevation of an elitist."

The Obamas' weekend swing through Indiana offered rare family photo ops. In Lafayette, where the campaign promised an ice-cream social, Obama, in dress shoes, followed his daughters, ages 9 and 6, on a lap around a roller rink.

"I need to tell you how proud I am of Malia and Sasha for going out and skating with all those cameras," he said.

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