McCain courts blue-collar Democrats

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

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

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.

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."

Conservative Democrats are a key group in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and the weakest part of the ideological spectrum for Obama. Just 62 percent of Democrats who called their political views "conservative" said they would vote for Obama in a race against McCain, compared with 74 percent who said they would vote for Clinton in the same matchup, according to a Gallup poll last month.

"Our numbers show that about 30 percent of Democrats who say they support Clinton say that if it came down to Obama versus McCain in November, they'd vote for McCain," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. (A smaller number of Obama supporters, some 20 percent, say they'd vote for McCain if Clinton is the nominee, Mr. Newport says.)

Nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania Democrats said they would vote for McCain or stay home if Obama was the nominee, according to exit polls from the April 22 primary.

The high numbers partly reflect emotions stirred up by the nomination battle and are likely to drop by the fall. But analysts say McCain will need to siphon some Clinton supporters to win in November, partly because McCain and Obama are well matched among independents.

"If McCain can only peel a decent percentage of those away," says Steven Peterson, a political scientist at Penn State Harrisburg, "that might be the difference between winning and losing."

Race only partly explains Obama's standing among white working-class Democrats, analysts say. Some see him as culturally aloof. And according to independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, many working-class voters see McCain as more trustworthy than Obama on the economy and national security.

"They're open to voting for Hillary Clinton because they feel they did better economically under the Clinton administration than under the current administration," says GOP strategist Whit Ayres, who has conducted focus groups among white-working class voters. "But there's no way in the world they're going to vote for Barack Obama. It's cultural: they feel he's the kind of guy who plays well in Harvard and Berkeley but not very well most places in between."

Even so, McCain faces considerable odds. Mr. Bush is suffering from record low approval ratings, and the Iraq war and a string of congressional scandals have cast a pall over the Republican Party. McCain aides acknowledge that the Democratic candidate will enjoy far greater financial resources in the general election. To have any chance of victory, McCain will have to cut into traditional bases of Democratic support, analysts say.

In addition to working-class voters, the campaign is also taking aim at another pillar of Clinton's base, Hispanics. McCain is likely to spend significant time in Florida, a swing state with a large Latino population and no shortage of Democratic antipathy toward party leaders. The Democratic National Committee has disqualified Florida's primary – which favored Clinton – because its January date was earlier than party rules allow.

On Monday, Cinco de Mayo, McCain launched a Spanish-language website and vowed to undo the damage he says the GOP inflicted on itself among Hispanics with the debate over immigration reform.

By Tuesday, however, McCain was back to tending his own base. In a speech in Winston-Salem N.C., he sought to assure skeptical Republicans of his conservative bona fides on judicial nominations.

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