Obama, Clinton intensify pursuit of white working class
His big lead in North Carolina slips heading into May 6 primary; exodus of whites cited.
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Sporting a Democratic donkey on his baseball cap and wearing wraparound sunglasses, this white, retired factory worker came to the train depot in Salisbury, N.C., this week to show support for Senator Clinton. As for Senator Obama, Mr. McIntyre says he's got "nothing against him, he's a good man." But if Obama is the Democratic nominee, come November McIntyre may just stay home "for the first time in 40 years" – even if that means four more years of GOP rule.
"That's just the way I feel, I guess," he says.
McIntyre represents a pivotal Southern constituency for Democrats: the white working class. As North Carolina Democrats prepare for Tuesday's primary, both candidates are aggressively courting them. As they do, the divisive facets of race and class are playing an increasing and evolving role in deciding the drawn-out Democratic contest.
Just a few months ago, Obama seemed to transcend both with his stunning 25-point lead in the polls in North Carolina. It encompassed a vast majority of the party's black voters and almost half of its white voters. But his loss to Clinton in Pennsylvania on April 22, his characterization of small-town America as "bitter," and the controversy surrounding his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., have cut his lead in half in the Tar Heel State. Almost all of the lost support has been among white voters, according to polls.
Margin of victory will be important
That puts an extra onus on Obama. Most political analysts expect the senator from Illinois to win North Carolina on Tuesday – he's still ahead of Clinton by more than 10 percentage points. But most of that lead comes from the 38 percent of registered Democrats who are African-American. To pull off a meaningful victory, some analysts say, Obama must woo back at least some of his lost white support and ease any unspoken anxieties of people like Benny McIntyre.
"If Obama doesn't win by 15 [percentage points] or more here it's a loss," says Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C. "If he wins by less than 10 percent, he's screaming that he's not electable [in November.] If he only gets 59 percent of the vote, that means he's only got 20 percent of the white vote."
This week, Obama tried to regain his footing as a candidate who can transcend race by rebuking Mr. Wright, longtime pastor of the Chicago church Obama attends. Wright's comments that the US government may have created AIDS to harm people of color and that US wartime efforts amount to terrorism were "not only divisive and destructive," Obama said Tuesday, but also may give "comfort to those who prey on hate." Wright's words were an "insult to what we're trying to do with this campaign," Obama added.