Democrats casting for white men, state's prize
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PHILADELPHIA -- The biggest prey this primary season, discussed in countless political dispatches and talk shows, is hiding in plain sight.
The species is described -- depending on who's talking -- as either traditional or old-fashioned, proud or angry, straight-talking or racist/sexist. It is rough-hewn. It is gritty. It is a walking, talking cliche.
It is Pennsylvania's voting-age white male and he may be none of the above, but rather as varied and hard to pin down as all 3.86 million of them statewide.
One is Ron Smith, a 63-year-old mechanical repairman at U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, whose biggest worries in this election are the economy and the war. He supports the soldiers in Iraq but wonders why they are there, and worries about paying for health care when he retires in two years.
And like many other white male voters in the state, according to polls, the Democrat from Youngwood is leaning toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama in the April 22 primary.
"You want some change, but don't want wild and crazy change. It needs to be tweaked -- not all at one time," Mr. Smith said.
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Mrs. Clinton went after a treasure trove of white male workers yesterday in a speech to the Pennsylvania convention of the AFL-CIO. Mr. Obama speaks to the same group today, while Mrs. Clinton travels to Pittsburgh for a closed-door economic summit at a union hall on the South Side.
Mr. Obama beat Mrs. Clinton among white men, often among huge margins, in the primaries in Wisconsin, Virginia, California and Maryland, but next-door in Ohio, whose demographics are often seen as similar to Pennsylvania's, Mrs. Clinton turned the tables, taking 58 percent of the white males to Mr. Obama's 37 percent, according to MSNBC exit polls. Pre-primary polling in Pennsylvania has shown she has similar leads among white males here.
With white female Democrats going toward Mrs. Clinton and black voters to Mr. Obama, the movement of the white male voter either way could decide this primary and possibly the nomination.
The answers to why Mr. Obama is not running very well among white men are as varied as the men themselves. In interviews, the two most-mentioned issues had to do with Illinois senator's race and his experience.
At a Cabela's sporting goods supercenter just across the state border in Triadelphia, W.Va., last week, Matt, a 47-year-old union electrician from Cheswick, said he was leaning toward Mr. Obama after watching his March 18 speech on race and his relationship with his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But his union supports Mrs. Clinton and he didn't want his last name used for fear of retribution.
"Race could be hurting him. If his name was John Smith it might be different -- that name is hurting him in this race," he said of Mr. Obama.
John Ellwood, 38, of East McKeesport, is a petroleum company lab tech. A Republican, he doesn't like either of the Democrats in the race, saying he questions the patriotism of Mr. Obama's wife, but also "can't see a woman running the country at this point," since men hold so many other powerful positions.
He said Democrats he knows will vote for Republican John McCain if Mr. Obama is the party's presidential nominee. "It's an issue of prejudice. This country's ignorance is well-known on prejudice," he said.
Glenn Csonka, a 38-year-old printer, registered as a Democrat this year in order to vote for Mr. Obama, whom he says tells people the truth, unlike other politicians in Washington. "Obama is 180 degrees from that stereotype," he said.
But among people he talks to, inflammatory comments by Mr. Obama's pastor were still at the forefront.
"They're thinking all of sudden that Obama is racist, and that he has a 'black agenda,' and that's hurting him with white voters," said Mr. Csonka (a very distant relation to the Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka).
Mrs. Clinton's questioning of Mr. Obama's experience has trickled down to many, including Glassport's Jim Terek, 55, an electrician at Clairton Works. The Democrat said he's not enthusiastic about either of his party's candidates, but "with Obama, it's 'I'll do this, I'll do this.' There's no 'HOW I'll do this,' " he said.
Bob Haggerty, 35, is a Frazer benefits consultant who switched from Republican to Democrat to vote for Mrs. Clinton. He is diabetic and is impressed with her strategies for improving health care.
"Barack Obama is a great speaker, but there is not much that he has done. He wows you with a speech, but when it comes to deeds he hasn't done much," Mr. Haggerty said. "When you talk to friends they say the same thing. He's a great speaker but doesn't have a track record."
Michael Schneider, 61, of the South Side thinks Mrs. Clinton is simply more electable in November than Mr. Obama, especially after the Rev. Wright controversy.
"The fact that Obama didn't know enough to leave the church and create distance from this guy tells me his judgment is not nearly as sound as many people like to think it is," he said in an e-mail.
Mike Kutska, 52, a laborer at the Clairton Works from Belle Vernon, said he's for Mrs. Clinton only "because I listen to [talk radio host] Michael Savage and he doesn't like Obama."
At work, he said, "everybody I talk to likes Clinton -- if they can't vote for her, they'll vote Republican."
Despite those claims, Mr. Obama has been chopping away at Mrs. Clinton's one-time large lead in the state, according to polls released yesterday.
A Rasmussen Reports poll showed Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Obama by just 5 percentage points -- 47 percent to 42 percent -- after leading by 10 points a week ago and by 15 points in early March.
Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said Mrs. Clinton's economic message is the key to the white male vote. "The economy is something they are acutely aware of in their own life, and right now it's not good," he said last week.
In past primaries, he said, "there was a great deal more enthusiasm for [Obama's] campaign and the white male voters, like everyone else, were caught up in that. ... Now that the Obama boom has somewhat subsided, and economic realities are settling in more, they're staying with Sen. Clinton."
Others see Mr. Obama's hopeful message getting traction in the state and think it could lead to racial healing in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
"I am not a political guy, but I'm tired of way things have been and hopeful for someone who has a fresh, charismatic way to give us something to believe in," said the Rev. Chad Collins, a pastor at Valley View Presbyterian church in Garfield. "I'm excited about a movement and a president willing to at least talk about and deal with and reconcile brokenness rather than ignore it."
As for Rev. Wright, "he is angry and has a right to be angry. Let's talk about it, rather than say he's loony," the Rev. Collins said.
Mrs. Clinton has allied herself with the state's Democratic infrastructure in the campaign -- from Gov. Ed Rendell to County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- which could also affect her showing with white males. Will they be the tradition-bound Democrats who vote exactly as the slate card handed to them says, or the reform-minded voters who sent 50 freshmen to the state House last year?
"For the most part, Pennsylvania is so provincial and machine," said Phil Lodge, 60, as he went to pick up his dog from a groomer by Cabela's. "Democrats want to pull that Democratic lever. They don't really like change -- they're so caught up in that that Obama doesn't appeal to them," the Washington, Pa., Republican said.
Inside Cabela's, Matt, the Cheswick electrician and Obama supporter, agreed, saying the state's political machinery is made for Mrs. Clinton. "Pittsburgh is made for her ... It's that machine. They have to -- they HAVE to -- pull that straight Democratic lever."
"Pennsylvania is not a very progressive state. That old mentality exists, more deeply in Pennsylvania and Ohio," said the Rev. Collins, a native of Penn Hills. "People from Pittsburgh stay in Pittsburgh. These are old generations and that carries a lot of weight ... Other places are a little more fresh."
"I do like the energy and enthusiasm that Obama has and with the right people around him, he can be a great president," said Frank Wateska, 50, a commercial printer and father of four from O'Hara said in an e-mail yesterday.
"If Hillary does get in, that would mean 24 years of Bush and Clintons in the White House."
In the Clairton Works parking lot, Mr. Smith, the mechanical repairman, said he wasn't sure if other white males in Pennsylvania were ready for such change, at least in the form of Mr. Obama.
"It's probably the ethnic thing that prevails. It's not right of course, but it's something that takes time to wean away from after a hundred years of opinion and bias," he said, standing by his red pick-up. "It takes a lot of time -- generations -- to say, hey, it should be on the person himself."
First Published April 2, 2008 12:00 am