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'Joe the Plumber' -  Unexpected Star of US Presidential Debate


One of the unexpected stars of Wednesday night's U.S. presidential debate turned out to be someone who was not even on the stage in New York. A man called "Joe the Plumber" was mentioned a total of 23 times by the candidates, who each tried to use him to make their arguments. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington on who "Joe the Plumber" is and what role he might play in the remaining 19 days of the presidential race.

Sam Joe Wurzelbacher unknowingly stepped into the election spotlight when he met Senator Obama as the Democratic nominee campaigned Sunday in Toledo, Ohio. The bald, brawny plumber asked Obama about his plan to increase taxes for people who earn more than $250,000 a year.

Wurzelbacher explained that he wants to buy the small plumbing business where he works, and said he was worried that would put him into the upper tax bracket of Obama's plan.

Obama acknowledged that that might be the case and said he did not want to punish the plumber with higher taxes, but said "... I think that when we spread the wealth around, it is good for everybody." The exchange was captured on video, and was aired on the conservative Fox News cable network, who interviewed the plumber.

Early in Wednesday's debate, Senator John McCain brought up Wurzelbacher, and repeatedly used him as an example to attack Obama's plan, which Senator McCain said would tax the wealthiest Americans, calling it "class warfare." McCain looked straight at the camera and spoke to Joe.

"Joe, I want to tell you, I will not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and I will keep your taxes low and I will provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees," he said. "And I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income."

Obama defended his tax plan, saying he had explained to Joe at the rally that 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000 a year.

"What I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were not in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then," he said. "And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who does not yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices."

Both candidates then continued to direct their answers to "Joe the Plumber" throughout much of the debate, using him as a symbol of an ordinary American as they outlined their health care plans and detailed how they might effect Joe.

The 34-year-old single father was watching the debate at home in his living room, and said he was surprised to hear his name mentioned so many times. As the debate continued, his phone began ringing, with journalists trying to contact him.

In one interview, he would not say who he is planning to vote for, but had this commentary after the debate.

"I think McCain did much better this time, he really got out his points," said Wurzelbacher. "So, I was pleased with that. I mean Obama, you cannot take away that he is just a very, he is a damned good speaker. But McCain came across with some solid points and I was real happy about that. He came across with his tax cuts, which I think are ultimately very good."

Wurzelbacher said he is skeptical of Obama.

"Obama, I mean he sits there and says he wants to help the middle class, but you know I am middle class," he said. "You have seen my house. You know I do not have any bells and whistles [fancy things] in here really. And you know, my truck is a couple of years old and I am going to have it for the, you know, next 10 years, probably. So, you know, I do not see him helping me out."

On Thursday, Wurzelbacher held news conferences in front of a crowd of reporters gathered in his suburban Toledo, Ohio driveway. He said all the media attention made him feel like "Britney Spears with a headache." He said the McCain campaign had asked him to attend a weekend rally, but he already had plans to travel to New York.

On the campaign trail, McCain's vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also talked about "Joe and Jane the Plumber" to attack Obama's tax plan, a sign that Joe may be invoked many times in the last days of the campaign.