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Democrats fear the swing factor

Times Staff Writers

With two celebrity-class candidates, Democrats have seen their presidential contest draw record voter turnout and an influx of Latinos and younger Americans to the party. But some are becoming concerned that the party now risks losing its hold on a more established set of needed supporters: blue-collar workers.

The fears are strong enough that the AFL-CIO today will announce a multimillion-dollar campaign to discredit Republican candidate John McCain among union households and link him to President Bush’s unpopular economic policies.

A separate labor-backed group, the Campaign to Defend America, has launched a television ad portraying McCain as “McSame as Bush” on issues including the Iraq war, economics and energy policy. The spot ends with a picture of the two men embracing.

It is all part of a preemptive effort to stem battleground-state defections by union households and other working-class voters known as Reagan Democrats -- swing voters who have been courted by both parties ever since they tipped the balance for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

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“That vote is up for grabs,” said David Bonior, campaign manager for John Edwards’ failed Democratic presidential bid. “We will have to work incredibly hard,” he said, to blunt McCain’s potential appeal to working-class voters, which is based on his status as a war hero and his reputation as a political moderate.

The AFL-CIO became concerned after polls and focus groups found considerable willingness among union members to consider supporting McCain, regardless of which Democrat won the nomination.

Republicans have signaled that they have the Reagan Democrats at the top of their target list. Ken Mehlman, a former GOP national chairman who is informally advising McCain, said the campaign’s blue-collar outreach would attract Reagan Democrats for the same reason the former president did: McCain is seen as frank, a good leader, strong on defense and opposed to tax increases.

Some analysts say the threat of defections to McCain will be particularly acute if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. In many of this year’s caucuses and primaries, Obama has lost working-class white voters to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Holding on to those voters in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania will be one key to the party’s efforts in November against McCain, the presumed GOP nominee.

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“The Obama campaign has not been very successful in connecting with middle-aged, older, white working-class voters,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster who has done work for the AFL-CIO and is not affiliated with any candidate. “It is very important for them to understand why that is so because those are the kinds of voters who have been swing voters in the last two general elections.”

Democratic voters have shown fairly consistent demographic patterns during the primary-season balloting: Clinton’s strongest support has come from a coalition of lower-income and older voters, while Obama in most states has been strongest among blacks, upscale voters and the young.

A test of the party’s effort to secure blue-collar workers will come April 22 with the Pennsylvania primary. On Tuesday, Obama won the Mississippi contest 61% to Clinton’s 37%.

Looking toward the general election, labor strategists were alarmed by polls and focus groups of undecided union members that showed McCain doing well in match-ups with either Democratic candidate, said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. But those focus groups also found that union members knew very little about McCain’s economic positions, including those the labor federation opposes.

The AFL-CIO hopes to change that with a campaign in 23 states to publicize his record through mailings, a new website and protests at McCain events.

Among other parts of McCain’s record, the effort will highlight his vote against increasing the minimum wage and his support for free trade bills that the labor federation says cost Americans jobs.

“People know that McCain was a POW and a war hero and for campaign reform,” Ackerman said. “What they don’t know is that his position is in lockstep with the failed Bush administration on issues of economic security.”

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, said, “Reagan Democrats support low taxes and less regulation, which Sen. McCain’s record has consistently supported.”

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Blue-collar workers are especially important to court because they make up the group most likely to switch party allegiance, Garin said.

Bonior argued that Obama has had trouble winning that constituency -- a problem he shares with past Democratic candidates John F. Kerry, Al Gore and Michael S. Dukakis.

“He has an academic approach to politics that doesn’t go well with Reagan Democrats,” said Bonior, a former House member whose Michigan district was a bastion of such voters.

In Ohio, exit polls found that Clinton won by double-digit margins among less-educated voters and union members. A key question is whether those voters would switch allegiance in November to Obama if he won the party’s nomination or be lured to the McCain camp.

Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said he was confident that the Illinois senator could win support from Clinton backers and that he would attract more independent and GOP voters than Clinton would.

“Clinton voters are good Democrats whose votes we will fight for in a general election,” Burton said.

To deliver its message in the coming weeks, the AFL-CIO will send 1 million fliers to members in battleground states, visit 400,000 union households on a single day in May, and launch protests to highlight McCain’s record on mortgage foreclosures, healthcare and tax breaks for wealthier Americans.

The effort represents a new flank in the Democrats’ critique of McCain, who has been pummeled from the left over his support for the Iraq war. Labor strategists see an opportunity to muster their economic arguments against McCain, which they say will do more to move working-class voters.

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“When the discussion is on the economy, we feel confident we can move voters our way,” said Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO.

“When it is about Iraq and foreign policy, we are less confident.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

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MISSISSIPPI PRIMARY

OBAMA: 61%

CLINTON: 37%

- 99% of precincts reporting


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