STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Barack Obama wants to prove he can win the support of blue-collar Democrats. Those are the voters who have resisted him most often. That resistance has been one of the arguments used against Obama by Hillary Clinton, and those voters could make a big difference this month when Democrats vote in Pennsylvania. It's a state where the electorate seems slanted toward voter groups that either Democrat would need in the fall.
Compared with the rest of the country, Pennsylvania voters are whiter, older, less educated, and less affluent. Some of those voters have been spending time with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: If you're looking for blue collar voters, Levittown, Pennsylvania is a good place to start. Like other Levittowns around the country, this working class suburb of Philadelphia was built by developer William Levitt in the 1950s for returning World War II vets who wanted a house and a yard and a nice place to raise their kids.
They had good jobs at nearby steel mills, rubber plants and car factories. A lot of those jobs are gone now, and hard-pressed communities like this have been the bedrock of Hillary Clinton's support. Barack Obama is trying to make inroads here. Fred Chamberlain is working hard to help him. Chamberlain is the vice president of the local boilermakers union.
Right now he's in a parking lot in front of Truman High School, wrestling a giant blue blimp that says, Boilermakers for Obama.
Mr. FRED CHAMBERLAIN (Boilermaker): Yeah, I'm just blowing it up with the helium, putting the helium in.
LIASSON: Chamberlain was hoping to fly the blimp in front of the town hall meeting Obama is holding at the school. But that's not happening - the blimp is limp.
Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I don't know what happened to my tail. I think maybe I have a hole in it.
LIASSON: The sagging blimp may not be a metaphor for Obama's prospects in Pennsylvania, but it could be a metaphor for the economic fortunes of Levittown. Chamberlain still has a good job - he builds ships in Philadelphia - and he's lived his whole life in Levittown.
Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: There's not too much jobs out here. I mean, for you to have medical insurance you almost have to be in the union. Other than that, you come up here in the suburbs, there are a lot of nine and 10-dollar-an-hour jobs up here.
LIASSON: The boilermakers have endorsed Obama, but in other states Obama has won union endorsements only to lose the union vote to Clinton. Chamberlain says sometimes it's hard to convince people to take a chance on Obama.
Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Middle class, we've been taking it on the chin for a little while now. We've been taking it on the chin. So you know, a lot of people don't like change. They like the Clinton years and they felt comfortable with the Clinton years, and now they would like to have the Clinton years back.
LIASSON: And there's something else Chamberlain encounters when he canvasses door-to-door for Obama in Levittown, something he doesn't hear about much at work - race.
Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: We actually as a local don't have much of that. We've been down there trying to bring the racial divide together for, you know, for as long as the shipyard has been a shipyard. But as we get out here, we hear it all the time, it's over and over and over.
LIASSON: What do you hear?
Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: You know, I'm not so sure about voting for an African-American.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LIASSON: At the town hall meeting at Truman High, volunteer Paul Hampill(ph) gives a surprisingly downbeat introduction of Obama. He doesn't bother with any of the hoopla.
Mr. PAUL HAMPILL (Volunteer): We used to have fearless steel works in this neighborhood and now it's down to only less than 100 jobs. We used to have Dial Soap in Bristol. That's completely gone. We used to have 3M just a few blocks from here, and they've all picked up and left. Don't get me wrong - this is still a great place to live.
(Soundbite of applause)
LIASSON: And then Hampill delivers the message the Obama campaign wants these voters to hear. He says Obama understands what regular folks are going through.
Mr. HAMPILL: We need someone who will watch out for the little guy, someone who grew up in a single-parent home and went through tough times himself. We need someone who will stand up for us.
LIASSON: Obama has been winning primaries with the support of upscale, affluent voters. But now he's trying to show he can relate to lunch-bucket Democrats. He bowled in Altoona - not very well - drank Yuengling beer out of the bottle, and he's dropped the big rock star-style rallies for smaller events like this one, where he stresses kitchen table issues.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): You've never paid more for a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk. Eggs have gone up about 30 percent and baked goods have gone up about 30 percent. Everything's going up about 30 percent at a time when wages and salaries have not gone up 30 percent.
LIASSON: Bailey's Bar and Grill at the five points intersection in Levittown specializes in chicken wings - big chicken wings.
Mr. MICHAEL SHEFMEYER(ph) (Bouncer): They're nice-sized wings. I mean, you're not getting ones that are one little bite and you're done. You're getting ones that are going to fill you up.
LIASSON: Tonight Bailey's is packed with the kind of voters Hillary Clinton can depend on and Obama wants to win. Michael Shefmeyer is the bouncer.
Mr. SHEFMEYER: I supported Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, like, she just seems more in touch with people than Barack Obama does.
LIASSON: But plumber Bill Goldie says he's inclined to support Obama.
Mr. BILL GOLDIE (Plumber): 'Cause he don't take contributions from the - what do you want to call it - the lobbyists. Just time for a change. You know, she was already there. She made her money, right? The Clintons made 109 million since he left office.
LIASSON: Anthony Patty is a teacher. He was for Obama until he heard about the incendiary comments of Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Mr. ANTHONY PATTY (Teacher): Obama really let me down with that. It's a huge character and leadership flaw.
LIASSON: Bennie Alger is a member of ASME, the public sector union that's endorsed Clinton. But he says he'll be voting for McCain.
Mr. BENNIE ALGER: I don't think our country's ready for a woman president.
LIASSON: Do you think they're ready for a black president?
Mr. ALGER: No, absolutely not.
LIASSON: Writer Michael Sokolove is from Levittown and recently he talked about his hometown on the Diane Rehm Show.
Mr. MICHAEL SOKOLOVE (Author): Certainly when I was growing up in Levittown, there were people who I cannot imagine going into the voting booth and casting a vote for somebody like Barack Obama. I think there's plenty of that still out there, but it's mixed in with economic insecurity, it's mixed in with being afraid to change. It's mixed in with things that aren't purely racial and it's very difficult to separate out.
I don't think anybody can put a percentage on how many people just won't cast that vote.
LIASSON: The governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, has endorsed Clinton, and he's talked about a kind of racial ceiling for Pennsylvania elections. Here he is on MSNBC.
Governor ED RENDELL (Democratic, Pennsylvania): There's no question that there are some Pennsylvanians, just like there are people all over the country, who aren't ready to vote an executive position for an African-American. And we're talking about a very small percentage of voters, but some of these primaries are decided by a very small percentage of voters.
LIASSON: Hillary Clinton is still ahead in the polls here, but her lead is shrinking, and Obama's efforts to reach out to voters in working class suburbs like Levittown may help him narrow the gap. But Obama, if he ends up the nominee, may actually need those voters in November a lot more than he needs them on April 22nd. Michael Sokolove...
Mr. SOKOLOVE: Barack Obama can win the nomination without their votes, but it's hard to imagine him winning in November without, you know, most of these core Democratic votes.
LIASSON: And that's what Hillary Clinton has been arguing to the superdelegates. She says Obama will be a weak nominee because he can't connect to white working class voters, voters Democrats need to carry big swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. If Obama wins or comes very close in Pennsylvania, he could prove her wrong. After Pennsylvania, he won't have many other chances.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.