Battling for the blue-collar vote

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE and JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune s t aff w r iters
  • Updated: August 31, 2008 - 7:49 AM

As the campaign gears up, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are courting the working-class voters whose decisions could sway the election.

Watch out, Bruce Peterson -- the presidential campaign is coming after you.

Peterson, a political independent from Coon Rapids who works at a manufacturing plant, is worried about disappearing jobs and has not decided yet if he wants Barack Obama or John McCain in the White House.

"We really don't know much about him," Petersen, 54, said of Obama as he shopped at an Anoka County discount store Saturday. "But I definitely don't like McCain because of the eight years with Bush. We'll see."

As Democrats bolt from their historic convention and Republicans get ready to start their own, they are hitting the campaign trail in pursuit of no one so much as independent-minded, working-class voters whose economic anxieties have strategists in both parties calling them a crucial voting bloc this fall.

From the packaging of their newly minted running mates, to the time they are spending this Labor Day weekend in blue-collar towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, both Obama and McCain look determined to win the hearts and minds of such voters. Many of them tell pollsters they fear the nation is on the wrong track.

"I need Pennsylvania," Obama told a crowd of several thousand at an outdoor rally in Beaver, Pa., where he and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, campaigned Friday. "I need you to stand up beside me and say now is the time to bring about change in America."

On Saturday, McCain appeared at a rally in Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh, with his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

McCain played up Palin's former union membership and reminded the western Pennsylvania crowd that her husband, Todd, who works in oil production, is still a member of the United Steelworkers union.

Waiting to get into the McCain rally, Marty Ware knew what his neighbors wanted to hear.

"Everyone here is pro-coal, that's what the economy is built on," Ware said. "My grandfather was a supervisor of a mine."

What did he think of McCain's Democratic opponent? "Everything I hear, he seems to be more anti-coal," Ware said.

In fact, Sen. Obama has proposed a 10-year spending plan to develop the type of clean-coal technology that also has gained support from President Bush.

But perceptions are always an important part of political reality, and so it is in this year's nascent presidential race.

Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio have been crucial in previous elections, with blue-collar workers playing a major role in determining the outcomes. And a recent survey suggests that Obama has his work cut out for him.

The July survey of voters in MaComb County, Mich., a heavily white, blue-collar community, at first blush would seem to be receptive to Obama's call for change. Most people there thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, and more identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans. But they favored McCain by 7 percentage points.

In the Pennsylvania primary earlier this month, Obama lost to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, capturing just 45 percent of the votes statewide. In Washington County, she outpolled him 71 percent to 29 percent.

More than 80 percent of the 15,000 residents in Washington are white and the median family income is $34,862. And money was very much on the minds of people heading to the McCain rally Saturday.

Jim Cyphers, 52, a mechanic, regards Obama as a spendthrift with taxpayers' money. "All he's going to do is raise your taxes, spend, spend, spend," he said.

Others doubted that Obama can make good on his plans to expand health-care coverage without raising taxes. "Anything he's going to do is going to enlarge government and raise taxes to support larger government," said Paul Salansky, 60, who called himself "a truck driver, farmer and Christian."

"There's probably not been enough money printed to support his plans," said Mike Pilyih, 50, of Pittsburgh.

Social issues matter as well as economic anxiety. At the McCain rally, former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swan, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, stirred up the crowd by reminding it that Obama once said job losses had dispirited small-town Pennsylvanians, leaving them to "cling to guns or religion."

But when Obama talks directly to working-class voters, he tells them that Republicans have abandoned them. He promises to invest in technologies that will create jobs and to cut middle-class taxes to help families pay their bills.

Many respond.

At the Obama rally in Beaver, Kim Stelmach of Pittsburgh cheered -- and fretted a bit. Despite having young twins at home, she finds time to volunteer for Obama, and she is well aware that Pennsylvania is a must-win state.

She and her husband, Russell, a self-employed window contractor, said they hear misgivings about Obama from blue-collar friends and during the door-knocking Kim does for the campaign. Russell Stelmach said he was less enthusiastic about Obama, but he strongly backs Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pa.

For some working-class Minnesotans, the economy is forcing them to reexamine long-held political affiliations.

Brian Lee shops at Sam's Club. But he said he's not one of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "Sam's Club Republicans."

"I used to be a Republican," said Lee, a Brooklyn Center resident. "But I think Bush changed my mind."

Lee, 45, gets paid $15 an hour at a technology manufacturing company in Plymouth. His wife works assembling medical equipment. They are struggling to pay the mortgage, cover their family's health insurance at $480 a month, and feed their five children.

These issues weren't nearly as imperative during the presidential election in 2004, Lee said.

"My mortgage is more money," he said. "And money is more difficult."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. pdoyle@startribune.com612-673-4504jross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168

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