What's the Deal with Rhode Island Voters?

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Little noticed amid the hubbub over Texas and Ohio, the Ocean State holds its presidential primary March 4. Darrell West of Brown University looks at who's voting for whom.

ALISON STEWART, host:

The smallest state in the union gets a big role next week. Rhode Island's 32 delegates are up for grabs on March 4th. Now, normally, Rhode Island, a land I love, I'm afraid to say would normally be just kind of a political blip. But this year, every delegate matters to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Darrell West is the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at my alma mater, Brown University.

Hi, Darrell.

Mr. DARRELL WEST (Director, Taubman Center for Public Policy, Brown University): Good morning. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well.

For people who don't know a lot about Rhode Island, the history is, shall we say, colorful. Roger Williams broke off or he was banished from Plymouth because of his extreme views on supporting freedom of speech, assembly and religion. He insisted the land must be purchased from the Indians rather than just taken from them. And you say that sort of independent spirit is still alive in Rhode Island; that it is, quote, "Small but feisty."

How do you think that's going to translate at the polls next Tuesday?

Mr. WEST: It's a state that often has produced surprising results. I mean, Rhode Island should be Clinton territory because it's a state that has a lot of women, senior citizens and working-class voters who are exactly the types of people in other states who have supported Hillary Clinton. But the Obama campaign has been outspending Hillary Clinton by 3-to-1 in Rhode Island in terms of advertising. So if there is any place where there might be a surprise, it could be Rhode Island.

STEWART: Now, Rhode Island has a higher percentage of people with bachelor's degrees and a more than - a higher median income, household income, than the nation as a whole. Has that been reflected in the candidates that the voters have chosen in the past for national or even local office?

Mr. WEST: Rhode Islanders tend to be pretty independent-minded. I mean, the reputation of the state is that it's a Democratic bastion. But half of the electorate actually identifies itself as independent. And we have open primaries so those independents can go either into the Democratic or Republican primaries. Given the fact that the GOP contest is pretty much settled, most of those independents are going to flood into the Democratic primary. And in other states, Obama has done better the larger the independent vote is in a particular state.

STEWART: Now, Texas and Ohio, they have more than three times the number of delegates up for grabs in Rhode Island, yet Obama have been pouring money into ads in Rhode Island. Hillary Clinton has Bill and Chelsea stumping there. Why do you think Rhode Island is a strategic must for both of them?

Mr. WEST: It's such a close race. I mean, Obama has about a 100-delegate lead over Clinton right now. But, you know, this is a race that could come down to individual delegates. Rhode Island just has 32 delegates. But in a very tight race, every delegate matters. And also on election night on March 4th, there are going to be four states balloting, and if Obama happens to lose Ohio and Texas, he still wants to be able to say that he won Vermont where he now is leading and if he can pull off an upset in Rhode Island then he can say he went two for four.

STEWART: We're speaking to Darrell West. He's the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

And I wonder if the case of Rhode Island senator, Republican Lincoln Chafee, who was not re-elected in 2006 - he lost to a Democrat - is that instructive for Tuesday's primary or general election?

Mr. WEST: Chafee has come out and endorsed Obama as has Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Today, Ted Kennedy is coming to the state. But in general, those types of endorsements, I think, are overrated. I mean, we saw the prominent example of the Kennedys endorsing Obama in Massachusetts, but Hillary Clinton won that state by a double-digit margin.

STEWART: Now, only 11 percent of the state electorate is registered Republican. Does that sound right?

Mr. WEST: Yes.

STEWART: Did the candidates, the GOP candidates, have they even been present there?

Mr. WEST: In the last two weeks, we have had visits both from McCain and Huckabee, but the GOP campaign is low-key, no phone calls, no television ads. All of the intensity and all of the excitement is really on the Democratic side just because that race is still undecided. It's very close and people feel their vote actually matters.

STEWART: But what about all these independents you told us about, almost half of the state electorate? Could they possibly decide, you know what, I'm liking McCain.

Mr. WEST: They could. And there certainly will be some independents who will go into the GOP primary. But independents tend to go for the exciting race. And that clearly, in this state, is on the Democratic side just because there's been so much money spent there and there's been a lot of voter mobilization. We have students going door-to-door for various candidates.

So this campaign is at a fever pitch. Rhode Island often has been an off-Broadway venue. It doesn't really attract a lot of attention. But right now, for the next five days, Rhode Island is in the middle of this national story.

STEWART: We saw in Texas and - we saw in Texas and Ohio so much discussion about health care and about NAFTA. What is the big campaign issue in Rhode Island?

Mr. WEST: The two big issues here still remain Iraq and the economy. I mean, there has been some attention to NAFTA and health care but not nearly to the extent that you've seen in Texas and Ohio. Ohio, in particular, is a state with a lot of manufacturing jobs. They've been hurt by this trading agreement so both candidates have made a major push on that issue. That issue, though, hasn't really attracted too much attention in New England.

STEWART: Now, I know you worked in a poll of Rhode Island voters, likely Rhode Island voters, and it showed that Clinton was ahead of Obama - 36 percent to 28 percent - but you don't think that Hillary Clinton necessarily has a lock.

Mr. WEST: I don't think it's a lock because we've done a survey three or four months ago that showed her with a 19 percentage point lead so her margin had dropped by half. And of course, Obama now has won 11 states in a row, has a lot of momentum. There's a lot of excitement in his campaign. He's outspending Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island. So she shouldn't assume she's necessarily going to win. I mean, this state still is very competitive.

STEWART: And could be full of surprises. Why I love Rhode Island.

Darrell West is the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. Nice to speak with you.

Mr. WEST: Thank you very much.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Hey, stay with us. Next on the BPP, our regular movie guide. Daniel Holloway. He's here with a round-up of what you should see this weekend at the movie theater.

STEWART: And I drink your milkshake. How lines from movies become iconic?

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. I drink to that.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to figure out if that's an insult or if that's like a positive thing? Am I supposed to be happy drinking my milkshake or am I supposed to be very upset?

STEWART: I don't think you're supposed to be happy about that, Rachel.

MARTIN: Okay.

STEWART: Yeah.

MARTIN: See the movie. Come back.

This is the BPP from NPR.

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Clinton's Blue-Collar Support Wavering in R.I.

Hillary Clinton takes the stage in Providence, RI i

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state. Darren McCollester/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton takes the stage in Providence, RI

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas and Vermont are holding their primaries on March 4, in a make-or-break day for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Read about what's at stake in these states and contests.

Pawtucket, R.I., arguably should be Clinton country.

As in much of Rhode Island, Pawtucket's residents are primarily blue-collar, union workers: mechanics, waitresses and teachers, who live in triple-decker homes or tidy bungalows that sit just a few feet apart.

Although the city of 70,000 has seen its share of old factories converted into loft apartments, the downtown's main attraction is a defunct cotton mill that dates back to the late 1700s and now doubles as a museum.

This is the type of town with the kind of voters who have supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in past primaries: the white working-class who make less than $50,000 a year.

But a recent local Brown University poll shows that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is making inroads in the state, the same week that he is also leading in nationwide polls for the first time. This is despite the fact that Obama has not actually visited Rhode Island, one of four states that will hold primaries on March 4. His campaign announced that he plans to stop in the state on Saturday.

Six weeks ago, Clinton had a 16-point lead over Obama in Rhode Island. Now, that margin has dwindled to just 8 points.

Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are making campaign stops in the state. They hope to solidify her advantage there. A victory in Rhode Island alone won't save Clinton's campaign: It offers just 21 delegates. But it could help if she only narrowly wins the larger March 4 primary states of Ohio and Texas, which have 141 and 193 Democratic delegates at stake, respectively.

On a recent chilly Sunday morning, Obama supporters canvassed in Pawtucket to try to close the gap between the two candidates even further. Toni Wynkoop, 38, and her two daughters were among the volunteers. Wynkoop said she felt inspired by Obama's speeches, as well as his health care plan.

One of her first stops was the first-floor apartment of 23-year-old waitress Megan Wagner, who has two young children and who works at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. Originally, Wagner supported Clinton because she wanted to vote a woman into the White House. Now, she finds herself leaning toward Obama as she examines the two candidates' health care plans. (Clinton's plan would require that everyone have insurance, paid for by a web of individual, government and employer money, while Obama's plan requires only children to get health care and then offers subsidies and tax credits for adults who cannot afford the plans).

"When I heard about national coverage, I thought that was what Hillary was going to be doing," Wagner said. "But if she is going to garnish wages, or doing whatever she has to do to cover that, whereas Obama is taking it and you are paying your own pay, you're probably better off."

A few doors down, 82-year-old registered Democrat Claire Lallier cautiously opened her door to the canvassers. She has not yet committed to either candidate, but she said she preferred Clinton.

"I think she's a real smart lady. She's a very good speaker, that's what I like about her," she said.

According to Brown University political scientist Darrell West, this split among blue-collar voters is happening across Rhode Island.

"[Obama] is starting to make inroads into her core constituencies," West said.

"I expect Rhode Island to be very competitive, certainly when you judge from the advertising," West said. "Clinton still has an edge, but Obama has the momentum on his side."

Although Obama is outspending Clinton three-to-one in advertising, Clinton has put in the face time.

She stopped in Rhode Island on Sunday for a roundtable on health care and a rally, where she talked about the economic issues important to Rhode Islanders: home foreclosures, health care and jobs moving overseas.

In her determination to hold onto the state's blue-collar voters, Clinton even risked alienating a big booster and Democratic superdelegate, the mayor of Providence, David Cicciline. The Clinton campaign asked him not to attend any of her three Rhode Island events, including a private fundraiser, because Cicciline is involved in an ongoing contract dispute with the local firefighters' union.

Union members saw it as a blatant, but ultimately effective gesture. "We think she's a good judge of character," said Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters' local 799. "It was a tough decision she had to make. She stood with the firefighters."

After the Clinton rally, several men wearing T-shirts and carrying printed signs bearing the names of their unions stood in one corner of the gymnasium. Scott Duhamel, the business representative for the local painters union, said his union's roughly 2,000 members are supporting Clinton — for now.

"We're supporting the senator for a number of reasons, largely economical," Duhamel said. "Two of the things that concern us the most are health care and the economy. We think she is probably the most electable. Although, I will tell you, quite clearly, we'll be there for whoever is the last Democrat standing."

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