Sen. Obama Seeks Union Workers

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has broad appeal among Democrats. But polls show there is one group with which he has yet to connect: blue-collar and union voters. Analysts say his more cerebral approach doesn't speak to their daily, economic worries.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Senator Barack Obama has broad appeal among Democrats black and white. But polls show one important group with which the presidential candidate has yet to connect: blue collar and union voters.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on what one pollster calls the chink in Obama's armor.

FRANK LANGFITT: Barack Obama spoke to the International Association of Firefighters a couple of months back. He talked for more than 20 minutes, but he never actually said the word union. And when he spoke to the Detroit Economic Club earlier this month, he didn't focus on the pain the auto industry faces as tens of thousands lose their jobs. Instead, he scolded car companies for building gas-guzzlers and pressed them to improve fuel economy. Obama explained why he delivered a tough message in a place that's hurting.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I don't believe in making proposals like this in California and then giving a different speech in Michigan.

LANGFITT: That's admirable, but it may not help him in next year's Michigan primary. Ed Sarpolus is a long time pollster there. With Michigan's economy a mess, he says Obama should have talked more about people's daily struggles and what he could do to help.

Mr. ED SARPOLUS (Vice President, EPIC-MRA): What are you going to do to be sure that I can pay for what I need, my kids are going to have a future, and how I'm going to get ahead. He does not have that message.

LANGFITT: Poll numbers seem to bear that out. In a head-to-head race, one Michigan poll shows Senator Hillary Clinton, the other leading Democrat, trouncing Obama among union households. Interestingly, former Senator John Edwards, who's worked the labor vote hard, trails both candidates with that group. For Obama and Clinton, voters split along income lines as well: People with more money like Obama, people with less like Clinton.

Mr. GEOFF GARIN (President, Peter D. Hart Research): Once you break that over $75,000 or above, that's where he's doing well. Below that, he's losing.

LANGFITT: Geoff Garin sees a similar pattern nationally. He's president of Peter Hart Research, one of the country's top Democratic polling firms. He says Clinton strikes more of a chord with working people because she talks more about the nitty-gritty of daily life. Obama resonates more with professionals because he speaks about transforming the country.

Mr. GARIN: He tends to address issues on a higher plane. And there is sort of a spiritual feeling to his message and so that more upscale voters tend to be very moved by that. They are looking for inspirational leadership and they see that very much in Senator Obama.

LANGFITT: But there are signs Obama is beginning to craft a message for union voters. A couple of weeks ago, he got a good response at a forum organized by the labor umbrella group the AFL-CIO in Trenton.

Unidentified Man: And give our very special guest a warm New Jersey labor welcome, Senator Barack Obama. Let's hear it for him.

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: Obama had a better feel for this audience than he did with the firefighters. He showed them that he understood their top goal, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form a union by just signing a card.

Sen. OBAMA: I don't need to educate everybody here, but just so you know that I know. If we've got car check, then companies can't delay. They can't put off. They can't hire a bunch of consultants to intimidate workers.

LANGFITT: Obama handled questions with ease, like this one from Kathleen Wilder from the United Food & Commercial Workers.

Ms. KATHLEEN WILDER (United Food & Commercial Workers): If elected president, I would like to know what your intentions are about Wal-Mart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I know I won't shop there.

Ms. WILDER: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: Obama criticized the company for not paying workers more. But then, he said something you don't often hear in a labor crowd.

Sen. OBAMA: Listen, there are some things that Wal-Mart does very well and we should learn from. They have perfected distribution. They've been unbelievable and we should admire them for that.

Mr. BARRY KUSHNIR (New Jersey Turnpike Authority): Wal-Mart is the evil empire.

LANGFITT: That's Barry Kushnir, a union member who was in the audience. He's a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike. Like others that day, he didn't like Obama's answer on Wal-Mart.

Mr. KUSHNIR: Most likely, their distribution system is made efficient because the way they treat their employees.

LANGFITT: But overall Kushnir liked Obama. So did Sharon Masino. She's a dealer at Caesars in Atlantic City and a union member there.

Ms. SHARON MASINO (Dealer, Caesars Atlantic City): Well, being a female I just, of course, wanted to just go with Hillary Clinton.

LANGFITT: Now she's not sure.

Ms. MASINO: I think that right now I am just as much interested in Senator Obama. I would probably say it's a 50-50.

LANGFITT: And for Obama, who still isn't well known among the working class, that's not bad. The union vote isn't as important as it used to be, but in the Democratic Primary it's still critical. And without some support from labor, it's tough to win.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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