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Obama-McCain: week one

Latest update : 2008-06-16

One week after Hillary Clinton left the race, John McCain and Barack Obama, the presumptive nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, traded arguments on the economy. Guillaume Meyer reports from Washington D.C..

DAYTON - Autoworker Dan Goodpaster liked Democrat Barack Obama when he heard the young politician speak at the 2004 party convention. Now he leans toward Republican John McCain in November's presidential election.

"It's a tough one. I really liked Obama's speech way back then but since this mess, all this controversy, I kind of like McCain," Goodpaster, 40, said as he picked up groceries at a union-sponsored food bank for laid-off autoworkers in Dayton.

Weeks after Obama condemned controversial racial remarks made by his former pastor, some white working-class voters in America's industrial heartland say they are skittish about voting for Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president.

While a majority of voters in many predominantly white states supported Obama during the Democratic nominating contests, exit polls in states he lost to Hillary Clinton showed voters concerned about race, casting a shadow on Obama's chances in parts of the country needed to win the White House.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week showed that while Obama is leading McCain by 47 percent to 41 percent nationally, McCain has a 20-point lead over Obama among white men, at 55 percent to 35 percent.

That has set the stage for a battle between Obama and McCain for the white working class in economically depressed but vote-rich industrial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, any of which could decide the election.

"A considerable number of white working-class men will be up for grabs, particularly in Ohio and the Rust Belt states," said Paul Beck, a political analyst at Ohio State University.

"These are people who have economic troubles and that may mean Obama and the Democrats have a better shot in '08 than in 2000 and 2004. But I think that will be Obama's major challenge ... because the issue of race will play into this."

Democrats are typically seen as the party that represents the working class, with a focus on social welfare issues including health care, education and labor.


Retired steelworker Don Coulter, 61, has heard firsthand the racism Obama is up against. Coulter, who is black, said plenty of his working-class brethren had bluntly told him they would prefer a white president.

"What I'm hearing is, 'I'm not going to vote for a black man, period,'" said Coulter, who supports Obama and has been registering voters in Columbus, Ohio.

"I try to refrain from getting upset. You've got to be calm and cool and tell them, 'Do you want the same thing you've had for eight years? Do you want better jobs for your kids?'"

Coulter's friend Jeff Harper, 39, a union leader and worker at a Columbus carbon plant, said Obama faces other issues -- Harper still gets group e-mails that insist, falsely, that Obama is a Muslim -- but many can't get past his skin color.

"They are just concerned about having a black man in office ... my dad lives in South Carolina, you can imagine the convincing I've had to do with him," said Harper, who is white. He said he had managed to persuade his father to back Obama.

Less glaring than racial hatred but equally problematic is stereotyping among white working-class voters, said political scientist Alan Abramowitz at Emory University in Atlanta.

"What you see is that there is clear evidence that among white voters fairly widespread soft racism is still fairly common," he said.

Many whites believed blacks were disproportionately poor and lagged whites in some measurements of education because they did not try hard enough, Abramowitz said, citing the 2004 National Election Study data.

Such attitudes were a factor in voting patterns in the primary elections and could go on being a factor in the November general election, he said.

Abramowitz said it was important to remember that previous Democratic nominees John Kerry and Al Gore had struggled to win over white voters, especially in the South and the Rust Belt.

Blue-collar voters have long eschewed political loyalty in the United States, gravitating to Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

For his part, Dayton autoworker Goodpaster said he was still undecided and cited jobs and the economy as his top concerns -- issues Democrats hope to capitalize on in depressed areas of the country.

Goodpaster voted for Obama in Ohio's March primary, and has not written him off entirely. He likes Obama's hopeful attitude and said it could give the United States new confidence.

"It's just the fact that you don't really know who Obama really is right now (that worries me)," Goodpaster said. "McCain's pretty much been a straight shooter."

Date created : 2008-06-16