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Economic Crisis Plays To Obama's Advantage In Michigan: McCain Cedes State

11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even as the McCain campaign was preparing to announce its withdrawal from Michigan yesterday, Barack Obama came out swinging on populist issues in the economically battered state, with a morning rally at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids -- the second largest city here. The crowd, which began lining up as early 7 a.m. in 50-degree temperatures, was estimated by government officials at roughly 15,900 people.

The language of Obama's 30-minute speech was plain but forceful, with the candidate declaring almost immediately, "Everywhere you look, the economic news is trouble...but for so many of you in Michigan, it's not really news at all."

"The unemployment rate here in Grand Rapids and other parts of this state is nearly double what it is across this country," Obama said. "And a new jobs report is coming out tomorrow that experts predict will show our ninth straight month of job loss. McCain just two weeks ago said 'the fundamentals of our economy are strong,'" he said. "Well, where I come from, the strongest fundamental of the economy is a job."

Playing to a diverse audience of students, union workers, teachers, veterans, business executives, and even stroller-pushing mothers and fathers, Obama declared, "We have to set aside the politics of the moment for something we haven't seen in Washington for a while - responsibility."

Defending his vote for the bailout as a necessary but insufficient step, Obama offered a stern rebuke of the status-quo:

"This financial crisis is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years. It's the result of speculators who gamed the system, regulators who looked the other way, and lobbyists who bought their way into our government. It's the result of an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else; a philosophy that views even the most common-sense regulations as unwise and unnecessary. Well, this crisis is nothing less than a final verdict on this failed philosophy - and it's a philosophy I'm running for President to end."

Obama wasted no time in attacking the "out of touch" economic policy of opponent John McCain, and even allowed an indirect slam at Sarah Palin:

He [McCain] says he'll take on corporate lobbyists now, but he put seven of the biggest lobbyists in Washington in charge of his campaign," Obama said. "And if you think those lobbyists are working day and night to elect him just to put themselves out of business, well I've got a bridge to sell you up in Alaska."

This is Obama's second appearance in Grand Rapids since being endorsed by then-scandal-free John Edwards in May. Michigan, which has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, is seen by many strategists as in play this year, although Sept. 18-Oct. 1 polling data averaged by Real Clear Politics has Obama up seven points over McCain.

"Sen. McCain just doesn't get it," Obama said as he laid forth his economic agenda. "But Michigan," he said, "you and I do get it." And while characteristically optimistic, the candidate was not unrealistic.

"People have asked whether the size of the plan that Congress is voting on, together with the weakening economy, means that the next president will have to scale back his agenda and some of his proposals," Obama said. "And there's no doubt that some programs or policies that I've proposed on the campaign trail may require more time to achieve. But," he said, "I reject the idea that you can't build a strong middle class at a time when our economy is weak. I believe that building a strong middle class is the key to making our economy strong."

Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation - 8.9 percent in August, according to the state government - largely owing to the collapse of the American auto industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Michigan leads the nation in outbound migration.

Obama seized upon such dire statistics today, sounding a decidedly populist note that was largely left to Edwards last time around.

"I'm running for president to make sure that the cars of the future are made in the same place they've always been made - right here in Michigan," he said.

"We can do this. Americans have done this before."

On to Lansing

Later that afternoon, Obama headed to Michigan State University in East Lansing for another outdoor rally. Nearly 18,000 listened and cheered as the Democratic candidate brought home the same economic message, and touched on government spending. The candidate said, "I'm not going to just talk about how I'm going to spend money, but also about how I am going to save money," addressing his plan to go through the federal budget to cut programs that he says don't work. The largest savings, Obama says, will come from ending the war in Iraq. The latest numbers say that the government is spending $10 billion a month on the war.

"This is an extraordinary moment in time," Obama said, talking directly to the thousands of MSU students in attendance. And in an emotional moment, Obama said, "we are all standing here, because somebody believed in us." The crowd responded with unabashed cheers. "Some of us had grandparents or parents who said, 'maybe I can't go to college, but my child can'; 'maybe I can't have my own business but my child can'; 'I may have to rent, but maybe my children will have a home they can call their own,'" Obama said. And then it got personal when he said, "somebody said, 'I may not have a lot of money but maybe my child will run for Senate' or 'I might live in a small village, but maybe someday my son can be president of the United States of America.'"

While the East Lansing rally was going on, the McCain campaign announced it was pulling staff and campaign advertising out of Michigan. The Republican National Committee confirmed this decision late last night.