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Obama: Voters care more about change than race

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JOHNSTON, Iowa — Barack Obama says voters in Iowa, though relatively few are black, care little about his race and much more about whether he’d be a president who would make their lives better.

“I am getting a fair hearing, and I will get a fair hearing, and I think we’re going to win this place,” Obama said last Friday, campaigning for the Iowa caucuses that are now just eight weeks away.

“People are less concerned about race and much more concerned about, ‘Is this somebody who is going to be fighting for me?’” he said.

Obama is among the top tier of Democrats in polls in Iowa along with Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, and electability in the 2008 election against the Republican nominee is a top issue among Democratic activists.

The Illinois senator says he’s encountered concerns before about whether voters are ready to support a black candidate.

“I heard this when I was running for the U.S. Senate,” said Obama. “Illinois is 12 percent African American, it’s not a majority African American state or even a substantial plurality African American state.”

The latest Census estimates, for 2005, show Illinois at 15 percent African American. Iowa registers a scant 2.3 percent.

Obama spoke during a taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program that aired later in the weekend. He said he answered doubts about the role race plays in politics when he won a tough Democratic primary for his Senate seat.

“People said there’s no way that folks downstate are going to vote for you,” said Obama. “Downstate Illinois is pretty similar to Iowa culturally and demographically. We ended up winning that primary by 20 points, we won the white vote, we won the rural vote, we won the farmer vote, there wasn’t a vote we didn’t win against strong candidates.”

Talk about race “gives the voters too little credit, and we’re confident that we’re going to do well,” said Obama. “If they feel that I can make their lives a little better, the last thing they are going to be thinking about is my race.”

On the subject of electability, he also took a swipe at Clinton, whose high negative ratings concern many Democrats.

“Surveys show that I can appeal to the Republicans, independents in a way that none of the other nominees can,” said Obama. “If you start off with half the country not wanting to vote for you, you don’t have a lot of margin of error.”

Emphasizing Iowa’s importance, he said, “If you don’t do well in Iowa, you’re going to have problems catching up, there’s no doubt about that. That’s true not just for me, but for Senator Clinton as well.”

Earlier that day, Obama pledged to help struggling families as president, saying that he and his wife Michelle have had their own difficulties balancing careers and family time, including shuttling kids to doctors, day care and other activities.

“And we had a lot more resources than most people,” said Obama, who talked about his plan at a roundtable with eight working women in Des Moines. The women shared their thoughts on trying to pay for day care, having no paid sick days and trying to save for retirement.

Obama said his proposals would expand the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, encourage states to develop programs for paid time off and would double funding for after-school programs. They also would expand the Child and Development Care Tax Credit to help families afford childcare expenses.

Obama said he wants more people to be able to take advantage of the law that now allows workers at businesses with at least 50 employees to take unpaid leave to care for ill family members or a new child. He proposes expanding that to businesses with at least 25 people.

Clinton has proposed similar plans, including dropping the family and medical leave threshold to 25 employees, getting states to experiment with paid leave and encouraging businesses to allow their workers to spend more time at home on flextime schedules and telecommuting.

Obama said his proposals would help people like his mother.

“I was raised by a single mother, and for most of my childhood she was juggling work with also still trying to get her education and raising two kids, and it was tough,” he said. “And there were times where she was really feeling as if she didn’t have much support.”

Associated Press writer Amy Lorentzen contributed to this story from Des Moines.

(Associated Press)