He sips beers, kisses babies, hangs out in bowling alleys and bottle feeds calves: Barack Obama is playing a ”regular guy” in a stealth attack on Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania.
While best known for soaring rhetoric and rock star-style rallies, the pace-setting Democrat is adopting a more personal touch, turning on the charm on a six-day bus tour of the north-eastern state, which votes on April 22.
Obama, who can come across as professorial and formal, is using the run-up to the primary to show a more down-to-earth side, hoping to catch fire among working-class and white voters, with whom he has so far struggled to connect.
”I’ve had a great time,” Obama said in the small town of Lancaster on Monday, where luxurious middle-class homes nestle close to simple framed houses of the reclusive Amish religious sect.
On the weekend, a grinning Obama played to the crowd in a bowling ally in gritty Altoona, several times sending balls wobbling into the gutter instead of crashing into pins at the end of his lane.
The excursion, a new twist on ”gutter politics”, ”didn’t go so well”, he said. ”There was an eight-year-old who was giving me tips.
”Of course, I hadn’t bowled since I was eight, so I had an excuse.”
Patrons, munching through piles of French fries, appeared spellbound when Obama and his sharp-suited Secret Service entourage showed up.
But he seemed to make some headway, with a nice line in self-deprecation and an impish sense of humour rarely seen in the bitter White House contest.
”I think it’s wonderful he came,” said Jean Montgomery (57), a co-owner of the bowling alley. ”He’s very friendly. I’m not real political. Probably now that he came in, I will support him.”
Earlier, the Illinois senator toured an agricultural fair at Penn State University and mocked his travelling press pack who, unlike him, were forced to waddle along with plastic covers over their shoes.
He jumped at the chance to bottle feed a calf, joking that his two young daughters would be delighted to know he had done something interesting for once.
There were more tales of the road for his audiences on Monday.
”We have stopped by some sports bars, I must admit, and had a few beers,” Obama said, remembering a detour to Sparky’s sports bar in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, hometown of golf legend Arnold Palmer.
Tagging along was Obama’s new best buddy, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who surprised the political world by endorsing him on Friday.
In a nod to his surroundings in the blue-collar joint, Obama shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, shot the breeze with customers and sipped a pint of Yeungling, the local brew, before paying the bill and leaving a tip.
All the quips and ”regular guy” antics have a serious purpose — to win states like Pennsylvania, which he would need in a general election, and to debunk Clinton’s claims that he cannot win big, largely Democratic states.
As he strives to become the first African-American president, Obama has sometimes failed to carry white, working-class voters, a crucial Democratic constituency, allowing Clinton to keep her campaign alive.
His support has mostly been based on younger voters, huge majorities of black voters and more affluent upper middle-class Americans, but he is keen to reach all parts of the Democratic coalition.
Obama is also trying to head off any damage wrought among working-class white people by video tapes of incendiary sermons given by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, which ignited a political firestorm in March. — Sapa-AFP