- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The importance for Republican presidential hopefuls of attracting blue-collar votes in their White House bid just got more important — but also more difficult.

By eliminating Osama bin Laden, President Obama narrowed his areas of political vulnerability. He now is less likely to be perceived as a timid leader weak on defense, as someone overly concerned with international opinion to the detriment of U.S. interests.

The Republican talking point that Mr. Obama benefited from interrogation tactics he criticized when they were deployed by his predecessor has merit but is fraught with peril, since it reminds everyone that George W. Bush let a cornered bin Laden escape, and then diverted U.S. attention to Iraq.

Moreover, this is a marginal riposte at best because rhetoric won’t alter the fact that al Qaeda’s leader met justice on Mr. Obama’s watch. Bottom line: By shoring up his national security credentials, Mr. Obama is forcing the GOP to look elsewhere to score political points — and secure votes — in next year’s presidential contest. One cache of voters found by the most recent two-term Republican presidents to be indispensable to their success consisted of working-class conservatives, aka Reagan Democrats or NASCAR Dads.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made significant inroads among voters whose economic interests are more allied with the Democratic outlook but who liked the social policies, cultural values or leadership abilities they saw in Reagan and Mr. Bush. Remember, the last Republican to unseat an incumbent Democratic president was Reagan, helped by legions pulled from the laboring ranks.

The ability to peel moderate and conservative working-class voters, including union members, away from the Democratic Party will be as important for the eventual Republican nominee as it was for Reagan in the 1980s and Mr. Bush in the 2000s. These voters not only number in the millions, they’re concentrated in battleground states that have determined recent elections, places like Ohio and Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and West Virginia.

And wooing them has appeared plausible, given the struggling economy and massive unemployment, as well as the sense among many working people and even trade unionists that the White House has taken them for granted and been too willing to yield on their issues. Indeed, labor’s disenchantment with Democratic officeholders in general has led some union leaders to declare an end to their automatic support for, and financial backing of, the party’s national candidates.

But drawing these presidential voters suddenly looms as more problematic for the GOP, for two reasons.

First, the continuing saga of Wisconsin and all it represents. In taking on public employees, the state’s Republican governor initially spared two of the more respected public-sector groups — police and firefighters — but now he’s decided to go after their collective-bargaining rights as he did with teachers and others. This carries a triple whammy: It alienates the many potential GOP voters who work in public safety, it further motivates labor, and it’s likely to give pause to independent voters.

The second factor involves recent changes in the Republican field. By a country mile, the GOP contender most likely to stir blue-collar and even union interest was Mike Huckabee, until he declared last week that he won’t run. As the nominee, or even in the second spot, the former Arkansas governor — a cultural conservative and economic populist who in 2008 castigated his Republican rivals for caring more about Wall Street than Main Street — would have a natural appeal to Reagan Democrats. Sarah Palin’s gutsy style and union husband offer some of that draw, but she too looks to be staying out of the race.

The most likely of the current crop to make inroads in working-class support for Mr. Obama might be Tim Pawlenty, the self-described advocate for “Sam’s Club Republicans.” But the former Minnesota governor has been moving steadily to the right on issue after issue. He might find that his efforts to appeal to the GOP’s conservative primary electorate to gain the nomination will make it harder to capture the very working-class conservatives so pivotal to the party’s general election prospects.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.