From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
WILMINGTON, NC -- Obama spent much of his speech at a town hall here on the Carolina coast focusing on economic issues, but he used his first few minutes to urge supporters to hit the polls early -- as early as today, in fact.
"You don't have to wait until Election Day to vote. You can vote right after you leave this rally. You don't even have to be registered yet. You can go and register and vote all in one stop and you can do that before Saturday," he said, going on to give the number for his hotlines and his Web site address for people who want information on where to go.
Polls show the Illinois senator leading Clinton in the Tar Heel State, but exit polling data from the contests he lost in Pennsylvania and Ohio also show he has had problems making inroads with blue-collar voters and those without college degrees, voters who are more concerned about the kind of kitchen-table issues his rival has made a point of emphasizing.
Over the weekend in Indiana, Obama talked extensively about gas prices, lost jobs, health care, and paying for college. Today in North Carolina, before a crowd the campaign estimated at 5,000, he spoke about Americans who were working harder and harder to get by, who were struggling to pay for food and college. He said many people felt like the American dream was slipping away, echoing the kinds of lines Clinton often uses on the stump. He also said that when he talks about the need to change the way politics is done in Washington, he is "being very specific." It's another favorite line of his rival's -- one she uses to paint him as more rhetoric than action, a criticism he has increasingly sought to address in his stump speech.
In a bid to connect with voters, Obama talked about his work as a community organizer and ended his remarks with a slice out of his life story, focusing on being raised by a single mother and about his grandfather who was from a small town in Kansas ""right smack dab in the middle of the Midwest."
Obama hit back at McCain for criticizing him for opposing a gas-tax holiday the Arizona senator has proposed. "He had the gall yesterday to tell me that obviously because I didn't agree with his plan I must not be sympathetic to poor people," Obama said. "That's what he said. This is at the same time that he is proposing hundreds of billion of dollars of more tax breaks for corporate interests, to the wealthiest Americans. And he doesn't explain how it is that we are going to replace the Highway Trust Fund. That's where your gasoline tax goes to rebuild roads and bridges and put people to back to work right here in North Carolina. So but, you see, here's the thing: That's typical of how Washington works."
The McCain camp was quick to respond. "It's clear Barack Obama's not strong enough to provide immediate relief at the pump, and it shows he doesn't understand our economy or have the ability to deliver for hardworking Americans," spokesman Tucker Bounds said in an email. "Sen. Obama's arguments against John McCain's gas-tax holiday are complete fiction, and the reality is that he used to support a gas-tax holiday before he was running for president."
Negativity in the campaign
Obama said his opponents were trying to raise questions about him and about his values, even though he had spoken often about his views and had written two books. Obama also addressed the negative tone the race had taken in recent weeks, acknowledging the negativity was at odds with the positive message his campaign was supposed to be about -- point the Clinton campaign has been making off and on for weeks.
"Sometimes we get sucked into this whole negative thing," he told the crowd. "You know people throw elbows at you, you start feeling like 'Oh, I gotta throw an elbow back.' So I noticed over the last several weeks, I told this to my team, you know, we -- we -- we're starting to sound like other folks, starting to run the same negative stuff. You know, And -- and -- and it shows, you know, that none of us are immune from this kind of politics. But the problem is that it doesn't help you."
Obama promised to focus on voters for the next nine days and the months between now and November and even over the next nine years, to laughter and applause.
An 82-year-old woman in the audience seemed to agree, eliciting thunderous applause during the Q&A portion of the event, when she urged Obama not to attack his rival. "Don't hit on Hillary, (it) brings us all down. Let her do that stuff. Leave her alone. You don't need to do that. You are higher than that. Bring us up higher than that," she said.
The senator spoke for about 38 minutes and then spent about 45 minutes taking questions on topics ranging from foreign policy to how to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina to his faith and his patriotism. He entered the stadium to loud cheering and chants of 'Yes we can', but no music, a bid to tone down the "rock star" feel of his events in order to make it easier for him to connect with voters.