Forget the plumber – Obama calls on 'Joe the Steelworker'

Campaign ad implicitly blaming Romney for wife's cancer death is causing a furore

Sparks are flying in the US presidential campaign over a television spot sponsored by a group supporting Barack Obama that features a former steel worker implicitly blaming Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, for the death of his wife from cancer.

Such has been the outcry over the advertisement paid for Priorities USA, a super-PAC political committee that independently supporting the re-election of Mr Obama, that the President's own campaign is distancing itself from it, not only because of its questionable taste but also because it may be factually flawed.

Emerging meanwhile as new accidental star of the 2012 race is the subject of the spot, 62-year-old Joe Soptic, now dubbed everywhere as Joe the Steelworker, partly in homage to Joe the Plumber, who became the "everyman" mascot of John McCain's Republican bid for the White House four years ago. (And who now, by the way, is running as an unlikely Republican candidate for Congress.)

Mr Soptic – at least Joe is his real name whereas Joe the Plumber was actually an Ohioan named Samuel Wurzelbacher – was among 700 workers laid off in 2001 by a Missouri steel company owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mr Romney, when it was forced to file for bankruptcy.

In the ad Mr Soptic recalls that losing his job also meant losing his family healthcare plan. He goes on to say that his wife years later became ill, that she ignored her symptoms because they were uninsured and then died within 22 days of being diagnosed with cancer in 2006. While no direct link is drawn between Mr Romney and his wife's death, the message that he was somehow responsible seems clear.

"When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my healthcare, and my family lost their healthcare," Mr Soptic says, adding at the spot's conclusion, "I do not think Mitt Romney realises what he's done to anyone. And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned."

Among those pouncing on the spot is Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker. "It's tragic to have that kind of dishonesty in a presidential campaign," he growled in one TV interview. Critics have also pointed out that Mr Romney was no longer in charge of Bain Capital when the steel company collapsed.

Trouble also hit the Romney camp, however, when its chief spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, noted in an interview that, had Mr Soptic lived in Massachusetts, he would have had access to health insurance because of the universal care law introduced by Mr Romney when he was governor of the state. Conservatives erupted instantly because they have pushed the candidate to disassociate himself from his Massachusetts healthcare law due to its similarity to Mr Obama's healthcare overhaul. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, blasted Ms Saul saying her comment was a "goldmine" for Democrats.

Erick Erickson of the conservative blog said her statement "may mark the day the Romney campaign died".

The Soptic ad does not tell the whole story of the man, meanwhile. Within six months of being laid off he found work as a janitor and with his pension and his new salary he takes in as much as he did when he worked at the steel plant. He has also married again.

Hence, perhaps, the sudden reticence on the part of the Obama campaign. "We don't have any knowledge of the story of the family," a spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Air Force One earlier this week.

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