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Hillary Targets the Credit Crisis


She's stepping up with measures aimed at voters' pocketbook woes

When news of the Bear Stearns (BSC) fire sale hit on Mar. 17, it didn't take long for reaction to come in from the campaign trail. All three candidates—Republican John McCain and Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—made statements that day supporting the need for swift action to ensure financial stability.

But only one mentioned she had talked that morning with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and the head of the New York Federal Reserve to get an update and pass along her views on the government-engineered deal. It was a small but telling move designed to highlight Clinton's contacts and knowledge of the issues at the heart of the crisis.

It won't be the last of such moves. On Mar. 20, Clinton called on Congress and the Bush Administration to pass a second stimulus bill targeted more directly toward helping struggling homeowners. She pledged a renewed push for an earlier plan that would provide $30 billion in funding to help blighted towns buy foreclosed or abandoned properties and counsel homeowners, and proposed an additional $10 billion to assist state agencies that refinance mortgages

"We've seen unprecedented Fed actions over the last several days to address the crisis on Wall Street, but nothing to address the crisis on Main Street," Clinton told Bloomberg, which first reported the news. Clinton plans to discuss the details of her stimulus plan in a speech on the economy set for Mar. 24. Further initiatives are likely in coming weeks.

The idea, of course, is to show voters exactly what Clinton would do to head off the crisis if she were in the White House. While her proposals are meant to provide a stark contrast to what many see as the too-slow approach of the Bush White House, that's hardly the only comparison her campaign would like voters to draw. The clear signal is that, unlike Senator Obama, she's got the experience and the plans to address America's economic woes.

As the U.S. faces its most severe financial crisis since the Depression, both Democratic campaigns are scrambling to figure out how the fallout will reshape the Presidential race. They will seize on the upheaval to display their bona fides when it comes to protecting ordinary citizens and their homes from recession and foreclosure.

With Clinton's emphasis on pragmatic plans and pocketbook issues, analysts say she could get a bump up if she can convince voters she's better prepared to handle the economy's deepening problems. With the next big primary set for Apr. 22 in Pennsylvania, "she's got five weeks to show she can really dominate this issue," says Daniel Clifton, a political analyst at investment firm Strategas Research Partners. "This could be a huge opportunity for her to rack up big margins."

So far, Clinton has done best with lower-income voters. But as the middle class comes to grips with declining house prices and 401(k) balances, and even layoffs, Clinton has a shot at broadening her reach—and denting Obama's appeal among the more affluent.

Obama's advisers say that he, too, is studying further plans to address the economy's problems, including measures to extend unemployment benefits and aid communities that have suffered a loss of tax revenues through foreclosures. Like Clinton, he backs congressional plans to refinance homeowners who need cheaper mortgages. "If conditions remain bad or worse, those are the things we'll push," says Heather Higginbottom, Obama's policy director.

The fight over Pennsylvania, which has a struggling industrial base, a large population of blue-collar workers, and rising foreclosures, will be critical. Even if Clinton tallies big victories in Pennsylvania or other remaining states, she will probably not emerge with a delegate lead. Yet by nurturing the perception that she's the one to save voters' jobs and homes, she could sway the critical superdelegates to her side. "Her only case is: I've got the lunch-bucket votes, and we can't win in November without them," says pollster John Zogby.

Back to The Financial Crisis Table of Contents

Sasseen is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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