National spotlight shines on pop-can collector

                          By MARK SIEBERT
                                 Register Staff Writer

                         Winniegate spun out of control Thursday afternoon.

                         Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was calling Winifred
                         Skinner a "hobo."

                         While she walked her regular morning route picking up
                         cans on Des Moines' east side, a woman asked how
                         Skinner could afford a designer jacket from Tommy Hilfiger.

                         Political operatives suggested she was a fake, a
                         sympathetic character in a carefully scripted political stunt
                         for Al Gore.

                         "No sir, I guarantee you I wasn't a plant," said a perturbed Skinner.
                         "I wouldn't have had to work that hard to see him if I was."

                         Skinner, 79, is the widow who went to a Gore rally
                         Wednesday in Altoona with a story to tell.

                         She's a registered Democrat. She hitched a ride to the
                         rally with a union representative. She likes Gore more than
                         Texas Gov. George Bush.

                         She insisted she's no fake.

                         Skinner told the vice president that she collected cans and
                         bottles for extra money because her prescription drug
                         costs are so high.

                         Her story made great political fodder.

                         Gore hugged and kissed her - more than once. The media,
                         eager to put a human face on a key campaign issue,
                         surrounded her afterward.

                         She was described as feisty. Her story was 'simple" and 'sweet."
                         Her photograph ran in most major national newspapers
                         Thursday, including the New York Times and USA Today.

                         TV networks wanted her to fly to New York but settled
                         for interviews from Des Moines. She appeared on NBC's
                         "Today Show" and ABC's "Good Morning America."

                         A camera crew tagged along as she picked up returnable
                         cans and bottles. Back at her one-bedroom house, a
                         couple of strangers touched by her story stopped by and
                         thrust four $10 bills in her hand.

                         She plans on donating the $40 to someone more needy.

                         Skinner said she wasn't looking for charity. She just
                         wanted the vice president to know how high drug prices
                         make it difficult for senior citizens to make ends meet.

                         Skinner learned that the glare of the national spotlight can burn, too.

                         The headline on a Washington Post story was
                         "News-Starved Media Falls for Political Stunt." Limbaugh
                         was calling her names.

                         "I wish he was man enough to call me," Skinner said of
                         Limbaugh on Thursday. "He'd meet his match."

                         On her morning walk with the TV crew, a skeptical woman asked
                         about her Hilfiger jacket. "I bought it about eight or 10 years ago
                         and I bought it at Younkers - on sale," Skinner said.

                         Skinner organized a union when she worked as a quality
                         inspector at EMCO, a Des Moines door manufacturer.
                         She doesn't use swear words.

                         Here's her version of what happened Wednesday:

                         A secretary at the local United Auto Workers office called
                         to see whether Skinner wanted to attend an invitation-only
                         Gore event in Altoona.

                         No, she replied, her "93 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was in
                         the shop with an oil leak. Marilyn D. Arnold, the union
                         secretary, said she had a list of senior citizens who might
                         want to attend a town-hall meeting on health-care costs.
                         Skinner was one of about 30 on the list, she said.

                         Arnold knew Skinner. They had coffee occasionally and
                         Arnold gave Skinner cans. Arnold offered her a ride to Altoona.

                         "She walked in the door and gets to talking to people and
                         says, "I wanted to talk to the man," " Arnold said.

                         A man in the audience told Gore he should give Skinner
                         the microphone.

                         She shined. She was poignant, funny and completely unafraid
                         about being on TV or in front of a presidential candidate.

                         The frenzy began.

                         By Thursday, her telephone rang constantly. She heard a
                         radio station was collecting cans for her. Someone from
                         the Republican Party had called - apparently they
                         crunched the numbers and contend George Bush's plan
                         would help her more than the Gore's plan. A local
                         pharmacy called.

                         For the first time in her life, her telephone answering
                         machine was full and no longer accepting messages.

                         Twenty-four hours after the Gore rally, Skinner sat at a
                         table in her back room. Several pill bottles were in front of
                         her along with a calculator, a photograph of her late
                         husband, Leland, and her coffee cup that sat atop the
                         donated $40. She said her EMCO pension of $129 a month
                         barely covers her health insurance. Social Security amounts
                         to $782. The drugs cost between $200 and $250 a month.

                         The cans - about $40 a month - help put food on the table.

                         "I never thought it would be like this," Skinner said of the
                         frenzy. "Oh, I've enjoyed it. I've met a lot of people, but I
                         never thought it would be national. I just had a point I
                         wanted to get across."

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