Democrats Eye Working-Class, White Men

General Motors Plant

hide captionEmployees at the General Motors assembly plant listen to a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama in Janesville, Wis.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In Wisconsin on Tuesday and in Ohio on March 4, white, working-class males are a key voting bloc that both Democratic candidates are working hard to win.

Some say these men could become the "soccer moms" of this election cycle — the demographic that tips the balance. Whoever captures most of them is likely to be the Democratic nominee.

But Wisconsin is a big state with a mix of urban and rural, factory and farm. It is a state with many blue-collar voters: men who are wondering what global economic changes are going to mean for them and their families long-term.

In downtown Milwaukee on a recent morning, one of these men is working as a parking attendant in a garage, a half block from where Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is speaking to thousands of supporters.

Gary Kerfes, 55, is directing traffic in front of the parking ramp in 11 degree weather. He says he would rather be in attendance at Obama's rally. Kerfes says he is an undecided voter, torn between Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. His big issue is the economy, but he also worries about what comes next in Iraq. He says he once supported the war, but now he doesn't know what to think.

As for Clinton and Obama, Kerfes says they are saying the same thing in different ways.

"I think either one of them would be very good," he says. "I don't know if America is ready for a woman president or an African-American president, but there is going to be change."

Kerfes says Obama's message of hope is appealing, but he says Clinton's more practical approach makes sense to him, as well.

In the nearby working-class town of Kenosha, Don Stella has owned a barbershop called "The Mensroom" for 40 years. One client is Stella's longtime friend, Jim Ventura, who is a retired heavy-equipment operator.

For Ventura, health insurance is the issue.

"They're losing it so rapidly, with all these businesses leaving and the middle class disappearing," he says.

Ventura likes Obama, but Stella is leaning toward Clinton.

Stella says he had his health care canceled by an insurance company 20 years ago, following heart bypass surgery. He says he appreciates all the work Clinton has done trying to provide affordable insurance, going back to her husband's presidency.

Even before they started talking about the issues that matter most to them, Ventura says this election is very different than previous ones — from his perspective as a 70-year-old white male.

"It's been quite a change — the fact that we've had a woman and a black man running. I had a hard time deciding which candidate I was going to vote for," he says.

Four years ago in Wisconsin, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won the Democratic presidential primary. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards finished in second. This year, there is no white male contender on the Democratic side.

Obama reached out to Edwards' supporters at a General Motors truck plant in Janesville, Wis. Clinton did the same at her own auto plant campaign stop in Ohio.

In Janesville, Leo Sokolic is an official in the local electrical workers union.

"I'm still an Edwards guy. I believe he's a good and honest person," he says. "That's where I was, but he's not here. The Democratic Party has got Obama and Hillary, and we've got to choose between them. And we've got to be unified behind them."

Sokolic says he is leaning toward Obama, but he admits that it is not so easy for everyone he knows.

"I have a couple of very close personal friends, and one said, point blank yesterday, that 'I'll never vote for a black man or a woman to be president of the United States.' And we wrestled for that over a couple of hours in conversation. He's still my friend. I still love him to death. I just don't agree with his decision. But that's America, too."

For Obama and Clinton, the outreach to working-class men will continue.

Obama has secured an important endorsement from a big activist union, the Service Employees International Union. Clinton has shown strength among teachers and other government employee unions.

In Wisconsin, the deciding battle is over the older unions — the ones whose members bent the metal and shaped Democratic politics since the 1930s.

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