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McCain courts blue-collar Democrats

His lead strategist says if McCain were to get 20 percent of these voters he will win.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2008

On the move: Republican presidential hopeful John McCain was in Charlotte, N.C., Monday.

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WASHINGTON

With the other party still waist-deep in its presidential nomination fight, John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, has been quietly courting the white working-class Democrats who have proved elusive for Barack Obama, his most likely rival in the fall.

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In the two weeks since Senator Obama's loss in Pennsylvania, Senator McCain has visited the struggling steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, to promote programs to retrain workers. He has gone to Allentown, Pa., to push a gas-tax holiday and argue that the Democrats' healthcare plans gave too much power to the government. And in Appalachian Kentucky, he has pledged to bring new jobs and technology to rural America.

All are the sort of places where Democrats have favored Obama's rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. If she loses the Democratic nomination, McCain has every intention of poaching some of her supporters for what is shaping up as a difficult fight against Obama in November.

Obama "may lose some of the traditional Democratic coalition if we run a good campaign and make a good case to some of those folks," says Charlie Black, McCain's chief campaign strategist. "If McCain were to get 20 percent nationally of blue-collar Democrats, he wins."

Some analysts dispute that figure, noting that Obama would probably offset any such deficit with high turnout among young voters and African-Americans. But many agree that a potentially significant number of Senator Clinton's working-class supporters could stay home or vote for McCain if Obama is the nominee.

Ronald Reagan rode the support of blue-collar Democrats to the White House in 1980, playing to social values and national security concerns and arguing that their own party had been hijacked by elites and special interests. Mr. Black said the McCain campaign was conducting research this year to identify Democrats with similar leanings.

"They don't like abortion on demand, they do want to keep their guns, and there's some hostility to big government," Black said. He signaled that the campaign would appeal to them on the economy and national security, as well as a range of social and cultural issues, from gay rights to gun control.

Likely to resurface in the fall campaign are Obama's remarks about "bitter" small-town voters who "cling" to guns and faith.

At the same time, McCain has sought to portray himself as a "different kind of Republican" – cut from a different cloth from President Bush. His tour late last month of "forgotten places" included stops in Selma, Ala., and other Democratic strongholds often absent from the GOP campaign map. On a stop in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, McCain called the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina "disgraceful."

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