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'Joe the Plumber' hearts Huckabee more than McCain

October 19, 2008 |  8:32 pm

On the same day that Barack Obama shattered fundraising records and won the endorsement of Colin Powell, John McCain held a pair of lackluster rallies in Ohio, a battleground state that the Arizona Republican insists he must win if he is to capture the White House on Nov. 4.

This morning's crowd at Otterbein College, near the capital of Columbus, covered an indoor basketball court, but the adjoining court was left empty. McCain's afternoon event, at a half-filled convention center in Toledo, seemed even more desultory. The crowd barely responded at times to his applause lines.

McCain gives a thumbs-up during Sunday's rally in Toledo, Ohio.

McCain gave them little cause for excitement. He delivered the same stump speech both times, almost word for word, with little emotion. He rushed through both so quickly that he left both events ahead of schedule.

Perhaps he was upset about who didn’t attend: Joe the Plumber.

McCain first mentioned Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, the Ohio man’s real name, during the final presidential debate last Wednesday. McCain hailed him 21 times that night, and has praised him dozens of times since in interviews and speeches.

Wurzelbacher, as the world now knows, had approached Obama to complain that he wanted to buy the two-man plumbing company where he worked, but feared paying higher taxes. Obama, who had been canvassing Wurzelbacher’s street in Holland, Ohio, outside Toledo, responded that wealthier people pay higher tax rates under the U.S. system to help “spread the wealth.”

McCain seized on the comment to lambaste his Democratic opponent as a leftist -- and to paint Wurzelbacher as a typical working man who would face higher taxes under Obama. Never mind that independent reviews concluded that Wurzelbacher actually would receive a tax cut under Obama's plan.

On Friday, McCain aide Brooke Buchanan raised the stakes when she told reporters that the candidate had telephoned Wurzelbacher that morning and “would love it” if he would campaign at McCain’s side Sunday.

So where was Wurzelbacher today? Alas, gone for the bright lights of the big city. He took his son and his father to New York City and appeared Saturday night as a guest on “Huckabee,” the Fox News talk show hosted by former GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Not to worry. McCain is scheduled to campaign again in the Toledo area at midweek, and aides said the invitation still stands.

-- Bob Drogin

Photo credit: Associated Press / Carol Kaster