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Iowans Say
'Hi, Obama'

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa--It happens every so often on the presidential campaign trail, amid the pomp and stagecraft: reality intrudes. And when it does, the candidate had better be ready, because he or she knows that voters and reporters alike search such moments for insights that the usual stump speech doesn't provide. It happened this afternoon for Barack Obama at the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, Iowa, when Geri Punteney, a 50-year-old Independence native sitting near the front of the crowd, got up to ask a question.

It was obvious from the start that she was upset and nervous. She addressed the senator with "Hi, Obama." She then gave her name and said, "I have a brother who's dying of cancer." She got no further and broke into sobs, and apologies for her sobs, and couldn't continue. Obama stepped forward, somewhat cautiously, and took her hand in his and offered some soothing words. She picked back up, saying that her brother was continuing to work full-time even though he has Stage 3 cancer, because otherwise he'd be without insurance. She herself had recently stopped working to care for her elderly mother and so was without insurance, which meant she couldn't get the dental surgery she needs.

"I don't think it's fair that my brother has to work when he's dying cancer just to keep his insurance," she said.

Obama's response offered further proof that, for all his reputation for uplifting oratory, he generally keeps the temperature turned lower down and is not a practitioner of the "I feel your pain" school of politics. In a serious, level tone not much different than the one he had delivered his speech in, he told Punteney, "First of all, we're all praying for you." He told her he had to watch family members die of cancer, including his mother. And looking up at the crowd, he quickly segued into a policy conclusion -- Punteney's and her brother's plight was a sign of the problem in tying health insurance to work. "One of the things I want to make sure of is that he is provided with health care whether or not he's working or not," he said. And he reminded the crowd that every other developed country in the world provides health insurance to all its citizens, that the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country but "we don't spend it wisely and we don't spend it fairly."

It was a marked contrast to how John Edwards has handled similar moments on the trail. Hearing tales of health system dysfunction, he typically seizes on them, declaring over and over in an angry shout, "This is wrong!" But Punteney said after the event that she appreciated Obama's response even at its lower volume. "You don't have to get outraged," she said. "He seems more down to earth, more mellow. He made eye contact, which means a lot to me."

Punteney elaborated some more on her family's situation. Her brother Ted, 48, does deliveries for Home Depot and other stores. His cancer was first discovered in his lymph nodes about a year and a half ago but he still puts in 50-hour weeks. "He gets real sick. He gets weak. He gets pain so bad he passes out sometimes," she said. He has a three-year-old daughter. Punteney was working as a porter at a nearby casino before quitting to care for her mother after her father's death: "She's not taking care of herself and falls a lot." Having lost her coverage, she is unable to attend to her dental needs and the incipient glaucoma in her eyes. Her only child, a 26-year-old daughter, is going through a nasty divorce.

Punteney said she came to the Obama event because she saw his field office in the nearby small town of Oelwein and walked in out of curiosity. She was leaning toward Edwards before, she said, but now she's for Obama.

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  October 5, 2007; 4:28 PM ET
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