WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bowling and beer could not help Barack Obama. Neither could waffles and cheesesteaks.
But the Democratic presidential contender’s hopes of riding his message of change into the White House in November could hinge on finding a way to connect with white working-class voters who so far have been cool to his campaign.
The Illinois senator’s decisive loss to rival Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania on Tuesday was the latest in a series of big-state setbacks fueled in part by his inability to win over blue-collar and low-income Democrats.
Those losses have prolonged the party’s bruising nominating fight and raised new questions about Obama’s prospects if he advances to the November election against Republican John McCain.
“Obama hasn’t been able to penetrate working-class voters -- white men and women who have not gone to college -- and that could be a big problem for the Democratic Party in November,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac College poll.
In Pennsylvania, exit polls found Clinton captured two of every three white voters from families earning less than $50,000 a year and the same number of those without college degrees, extending the dominance she showed in other big-state showdowns from Ohio to New Jersey and California.
Part of the problem for Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, is uneasiness about race. The exit polls showed nearly 20 percent of voters in Pennsylvania said race was important to them, and they heavily backed Clinton.
“Let’s not pretend, some of it is race,” pollster John Zogby said. “Among some ethnic voters, there will be difficulty accepting an African-American, especially when he’s off message and on the defensive the way Obama was the last few weeks.”
In the run-up to the Pennsylvania vote, Obama was forced to spend days explaining his comments about the state’s “bitter” small-town residents, prompting a flurry of charges from Clinton and McCain he was an out-of-touch elitist.
Obama also had to quell a controversy over his former pastor’s inflammatory comments, including charges the U.S. government spread the AIDS virus to blacks.
Obama struggled to connect with blue-collar voters on a personal level despite weeks of effort. He stopped in bars for a beer, displayed little skill at bowling and frequently visited diners for a waffle or a Philadelphia cheesesteak.
‘CAN’T IDENTIFY WITH HIM’
“They just can’t identify with him, they haven’t found anything they can relate to,” Richards said. Exit polls showed a quarter of Clinton supporters said they might vote for McCain or simply not vote if Obama was the Democratic nominee.
Clinton, a New York senator, says her string of big-state wins shows she is better suited than Obama to capture those crucial battlegrounds for Democrats in November. Obama aides dismiss the idea, saying a general election fight with McCain would change the dynamic and focus on different issues.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said working-class voters had largely turned away from Democrats in recent presidential elections, and Obama’s ability to drive up turnout among blacks, independents and young voters would be a more important factor.
“Let’s understand -- the white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections,” Axelrod told National Public Radio. “This is not new. Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes.”
Conservative blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” left the party in the 1980s for Republican President Ronald Reagan and many never came back. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore lost working-class whites by 17 points, and in 2004 John Kerry lost them by 23 points.
Democrats appeared to make gains with the group in 2006, when economic concerns, the unpopular Iraq war and unhappiness with President George W. Bush cut the margin of loss for Democratic congressional candidates among working-class voters to 10 percentage points.
McCain clearly sees the opportunity to score with blue-collar voters in a possible November matchup with Obama. The Arizona senator this week is touring economically struggling areas where Republicans normally do not go.
“Our targeting and analysis of the 2008 political landscape puts voters who are on the lower economic brackets at the heart of either party’s winning coalition,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in a memo on Wednesday.
“Obama’s media foibles contributed to his inability to connect to voters who are suffering the real impact of this challenging economic environment,” he said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)
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