MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Wisconsin next Tuesday and in Ohio two weeks later, both the Democratic campaigns will be trying to win the votes of white working-class males. Some say these voters could become the soccer moms of this election cycle - the demographic group that tips the balance. The thinking is, whoever captures most of these men is likely to be the Democratic nominee.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Milwaukee.

DON GONEYA: Wisconsin is a big state with a mix of urban and rural, factory and farm, and it's a place with lots of blue-collar voters, lots of men who are wondering what global economic changes are going to mean for them and their families long term.

(Soundbite of passing car)

GONYEA: This is downtown Milwaukee this morning where one of those voters is on duty as the attendant at a parking structure a half block from where Senator Barack Obama is speaking to thousands of supporters.

You wish you could be inside seeing the event?

Mr. GARY KERFES (Parking Attendant): I would like to hear him speak.

GONYEA: But instead 55-year-old Gary Kerfes is working, directing traffic in front of the parking ramp in 11 degree temperatures made all the colder by the wind. Kerfes says he is undecided between Obama and Clinton. His big issue is the economy, but he also worries about what comes next in Iraq. As for Clinton and Obama…

Mr. KERFES: They're both trying to say the same thing in a little different way. I think either one of them would be very good. I don't know if the world is ready for a woman president yet or an African-American president. It's going to be change for them.

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

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: Tucked amid modest houses in a residential section of the working-class town of Kenosha down near the Illinois state line, Don Stella has been cutting hair for exactly 40 years at his barbershop called The Mensroom. Stella is 74, a white-haired gentleman sits in the barber chair.

Mr. DON STELLA (Barber): I can make white hair turn to silk(ph).

GONYEA: The man getting the haircut is Stella's longtime friend and client, Jim Ventura, a retired heavy-equipment operator. For Ventura, health insurance is the issue.

Mr. JIM VENTURA (Retired Heavy-Equipment Operator): Health insurance. And they're losing it so rapidly, you know, with all these businesses leaving and the middle class, you know, disappearing.

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

Mr. STELLA: I like Hillary. I think she's a very smart woman.

Mr. VENTURA: I do, too. I think she's a very smart woman, and I like her husband. I don't - yeah I always did.

GONYEA: But even before these two men started talking about the issues that matter most to them, Ventura also noted something without first being prompted that makes this election very different for a 70-year-old white male.

Mr. VENTURA: I think that it's really - it's been quite a change. I mean, the fact that we've had a woman and a black man running, you know. And I had a hard time deciding which candidate I was going to vote for.

GONAYEA: Four years ago here the primary was won by John Kerry with John Edwards a surprisingly strong second. But this year, there's no white male contender on the Democratic side. Obama reached out to Edwards' supporters two days ago at a General Motors truck plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton did the same at her own auto plant appearances in Ohio and Maryland this week.

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

Mr. LEO SOKOLIC (Electrical Workers Union Official): I'm still an Edwards guy. I believe he's a good and honest person, you know. That's where I was, but he's not here. He's not here. The Democratic Party has got Obama and Hillary, and we have to choose between them. And then, whoever the choice ends up being, we all have to support them.

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

Mr. SOKOLIC: I have a couple of very close personal friends that - one of them point blank said yesterday, I'd never vote for a black man or a woman to be president of the United States. And we wrestled over that for a couple of hours in conversation. You know, he's still my friend. I still love him to death. I just don't agree with his political or his personal views. But that's America, too.

GONYEA: For Obama and Clinton, the outreach to working-class men will continue. Obama today secured an important endorsement from a big activist union, the Service Employees International Union. Senator Clinton has shown strength among teachers and other government employee unions.

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

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Milwaukee.

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