Obama, Clinton intensify pursuit of white working class

His big lead in North Carolina slips heading into May 6 primary; exodus of whites cited.

Barack Obama arriving at a rally Monday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted backers Monday in Salisbury, N.C.

Benny McIntyre represents Hillary Rodham Clinton's strength and Barack Obama's challenge here in the Tar Heel State.

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.

That seemed to mollify many supporters who had turned out in Winston-Salem to hear Obama speak, but some voiced concern about the long-term impact of the Wright controversy.

"It may affect some people, so we need to get the information out about his policies and stands," says Sheila Fleming of East Bend, N.C. She is white and had been a Republican for 48 years, but says Obama prompted her to switch parties.

Later Tuesday, at a packed high school gym in Hickory, N.C., Obama continued to reach out to working-class voters. He called for creation of green jobs and again insisted that the gas-tax holiday backed by Clinton and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain is a "gimmick" that would save Americans about $28 to $30 over the summer.

"That's about $9 a month.… We have to have some truth-telling in this campaign," he told a rapt crowd. "The crisis families are facing is real … but it's not just gas. It's buying eggs and a loaf a bread." Instead of giving a hiatus from the federal gasoline tax, Congress should enact the $1,000-a-year middle-class tax cut proposed in the Senate last September, Obama said.

Clinton, also crisscrossing North Carolina this week, says the gas-tax holiday would give immediate relief to frustrated motorists and contends that Obama's opposition shows he is out of touch. At a rally here in Salisbury, she portrayed herself as a fighter who understood better than Obama the challenges facing working Americans.

"I'm running for president to stand up for you, because I think you need somebody who's a champion in the White House," she told a cheering crowd.

McIntyre, for one, likes that feistiness in Clinton. So does Guy Fisher, a retired minister who was also at the Salisbury rally. He's voting for Clinton, and his wife is supporting Obama. But unlike McIntyre, Mr. Fisher says he will vote for Obama in November if he's the Democratic nominee.

"Whichever one, it's time for a change," he says.

Tight-lipped North Carolinians

While Obama is favored to win North Carolina, political analysts here note that the state can be unpredictable, in part because people don't always tell pollsters or reporters what they're really thinking. That's particularly true, they say, when race is an issue.

"That has been a factor here, but I don't think race is going to be as significant as it was several decades ago," says Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We have much more easygoing discussions now."

Other analysts aren't so confident, pointing to the faces at each candidate's rallies. At Clinton's events, they are predominantly white. Obama attracts a racially mixed crowd. The Wright controversy has also brought the issue of race much more to the fore here, they add.

"The more that that's in the news, the more that can't be good for the Obama campaign," says John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

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