INDIANAPOLIS—Barack Obama has become a family values candidate.
Wracked by questions over his beliefs, patriotism and values following the most tumultuous passage of his campaign, Mr. Obama has sought solace – and a new story line – in family.
Over the past few days, Mr. Obama steeped his speeches in talk about his grandparents and parents and physically evoked the imagery of idyllic Americana by campaigning with his wife and two daughters around picnic tables and playgrounds.
On Thursday afternoon, voters waited for Mr. Obama on benches around a ring of bales of hay in the dairy beef club of the South Bend fair grounds. In a hangar down the field, the Michiana Chapter of Studebaker, Indiana, held a swap meet with automobile enthusiasts perusing shining hubcaps, polished bumpers and model cars. Many of them were the very Republicans Mr. Obama had once hoped to reach out to, but it was clear that here, at least, the damage done by the controversy surrounding his former pastor Jeremiah Wright had taken its toll.
Karen Dyer, 52-year-old treasurer of the swap meet from South Bend, said she no longer trusted Obama.
“If his Reverend Wright is saying this now, Obama had to have heard this before. And that scares the bejeevers out of me,” she said. Once she might have considered voting for Obama before, but “after this Reverend Wright thing, no.”
Phyllis Middleton, a 52-year-old editor of the swaps newsletter Home of Champions from Tipton County, said she was bothered by comments Mr. Obama’s wife had once made that the reception of her husband’s campaign made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.
“This is the best country to live in,” she said. “That rubbed me the wrong way.”
When he arrived at the fairgrounds, Mr. Obama sought to allay those concerns by refocusing voters on the economy and his American roots.
“My grandparents grew up in a small town in Kansas,” he said, and went on from there.
Many of the attendees found this refreshing.
“I like Obama more than Hillary,” said Orville Hainey, a 28-year-old dairy farmer from Akron. “He just seems so much less corrupted; he just seems like he hasn’t sold his soul.”
Susanne Holzshuh, 42, who takes of her elderly parents in Elkhart, said she had switched her support from Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama.
“I really like his integrity and sincerity,” she said, adding that the furor over Reverend Wright was mostly lost on her. “I haven’t always liked what my priest has said. I have sat through sermons gritting my teeth.”
Later that afternoon, Mr. Obama visited a farm in Union Mills. A woman ran up to him as he got off his black bus, described herself as a “middle-aged white woman who has supported you,” and told him he was going to be the “savior of our country.” Mr. Obama demurred modestly, and walked over gravel to greet the farmer and his family and friends under the paved driveway’s basketball rim and in the middle of vast dirt and grass-patched fields used to grow corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Is this your family?” Obama asked the farmer, Andy Evers, 35, who said they were. “Well, I got to go say hi!”
As they all gathered for a family picture with the candidate, Mr. Obama said, “Press, press, back up,” and winked at one of the photographers in his traveling press corps.
Then he talked about the issues facing family farmers.
“Well, there are several challenges,” said Mr. Evers.
“But you’re making it,” Mr. Obama said.
“We’re making it,” said Mr. Evers.
“And you’ve got a beautiful family,” Mr. Obama responded.
The group then retired to a wooden table, where, before discussing the issues most on their minds, Mr. Obama — who had actually drained a can of Budweiser at an early event — recounted a call of support he had received from John Wooden on the way over. As Mr. Obama contrasted his approach to the gas tax with that of Mrs. Clinton, and told the group that his sister was a teacher, an Obama aide furtively whispered a few words in the ear of Mr. Evers’ 14-year-old stepson and then planted a basketball between his feet.
One of the people at the table asked Mr. Obama how his kids were doing.
“My kids are terrific,” said Mr. Obama, adding, “I’m the one who is having trouble.”
With the talk over, Mr. Evers’ stepson, Aaron Villicana, as instructed by the campaign, asked Mr. Obama if he wanted to shoot around a bit, which led to a spirited contest that elicited the widely reported comment from Mr. Obama: "You know, he’s tough. He keeps on coming back. He’s like Hillary.”
Ultimately, the candidate won, and visibly pleased, headed back to the bus where David Axelrod, his chief strategist, chuckled in the rain. Robert Gibbs, his communications director, sat inside in front of a large television tuned to CNN.
The voters at the house said they were impressed at how regular a guy Mr. Obama seemed.
Friday morning, Mr. Obama addressed the question of values head-on at a press conference in Indianapolis.
Asked whether he felt it was appropriate to question values in a presidential debate, Mr. Obama said, “It is very relevant.” He also said, “My values and my ideals and my character are geared towards helping others. And particularly helping people who are struggling to live out their American dream the same way that my parents and my grandparents and I and Michelle have been able to live out ours. That’s what this campaign is about.”
On Saturday morning, Mr. Obama flew back to Indiana – he had made a quick trip to North Carolina to defend his narrowing lead there — and brought reinforcements.
Speaking at North Lawrence High School in an Indianapolis suburb, Mr. Obama stood in front of a podium with a sign reading “Reclaiming the American Dream,” His wife and children, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6, smiled with him onstage and then took their seats, as Mr. Obama talked about his grandfather, grandmother, mother and his father-in-law who overcame multiple sclerosis to send his own children to prestigious colleges.
As he delivered his speech, Mr. Axelrod watched from the back of the room and, as he occasionally does, denied the reality unfolding before reporters’ eyes. When asked if Obama was emphasizing families and family values more, he said, “If you go back to his speech and the convention in 2004, that was one of the most values-laden speeches that has ever been given at a Democratic convention,” he said. “This is not new stuff.”
Another Obama staffer said that the public appearance was the girls’ first since Iowa, but the aide also disagreed with the notion that Obama was using his family to illustrate his values, arguing instead that their schedules coincided this weekend.
After the speech, Michelle and the girls jumped back on the stage. Sasha beamed under her pink headband. Malia giggled at her mother’s tickling. Then they skipped off only to reappear a few hours later at a “family day” picnic in Noblesville. Mothers and fathers and children feasted on cake and pie, cookies and gummy bears. “Are those the girls?” said one woman, craning her neck from atop a picnic table. When the Obamas made it out to the open field, the wind kicked up and the temperature dropped. Ms. Obama said, “All the little kids who are here — just so you know, our kids are going over to the park.”
She said that what kept them going through the grueling campaign was “the view and the vision we have for our daughters.”
An Obama White House, she said, “would be a place where children and family become the core of everything that happens outside of that building.”
Mr. Obama said, “Michelle and I were looking at pictures of what Malia and Sasha looked like at the start of this race and what they looked like now.”
As Mr. Obama spoke, television cameras pointed at his daughters in the playground a few feet away, where they ran around with scores of other children, slipped down slides, rode a seesaw under the chaperone of a Secret Service agent and ignored boys in Indianapolis Colts jerseys.
The familial tableau was just what some of the people in the crowd were looking for.
“He seems like such a nice person with sweet children and a sweet family, and that made me feel good,” said Joan Shepard, a 74-year-old supporter from Westfield whose grandson had played with the Obama girls. “I was surprised. Very surprised.”