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DINE: Romney, Santorum could not be helping Obama more

- - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There may be more that Republican presidential candidates could do to alienate the blue-collar conservatives, Reagan Democrats and disaffected union workers they'll need in November to compete in industrial states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.

Nothing, however, comes to mind.

President Obama's re-election team could not write this script any better than the Republican candidates are ad-libbing it.

Mitt Romney had pretty much gotten past the $10,000 wager, not caring about poor people, even the part about how he enjoyed firing folks, when the former Massachusetts governor volunteered a few days ago as he campaigned in Michigan that his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs.

Let's get this straight. He opposed the government's rescue of the Big Three, begun by President George W. Bush and completed by Mr. Obama, he favored letting the automakers go bankrupt and Detroit go belly-up - but Michigan voters should vote for him because his wife drives their luxury cars. Oh ... and NASCAR fans should love him because he knows some of the team owners.

Mr. Romney's campaign staff can only hope that nobody resurrects the old John McCain question. "So, governor, how many homes do you own?"

"Let me think about that. I don't want to overlook anything. So I can be fully responsive, do you mean just within this country, or are we counting the Cayman Islands? What about France?"

Maybe this is just some unfortunate clumsiness. But with the other leading candidate, it seems intentional.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has a lot going for him in terms of relating to conservative working people whose support was pivotal for the second Mr. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and whose indifference toward George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Mr. McCain helped seal their fates.

These voters will be a key in November, because they are concentrated in the industrial heartland's swing states. No Republican candidate has lost Ohio and proceeded to the White House. And they need to at least be competitive enough in Michigan and Pennsylvania to force Mr. Obama to spend resources defending those states.

Many blue-collar conservatives and even union members who voted Democratic in 2008 are disillusioned with a president who has not fulfilled his promises to reform labor law and turn free trade into fair trade, whose record on jobs is mediocre, and whose administration is populated with Wall Street and banking resumes.

That's what makes the Republican inability - or primary-driven refusal - to relate to what former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called "Wal-Mart voters" such a shame. Many of them are potentially available to the Republican nominee. Or, they would have been - before the Republican field began playing a "soft on unions" card against one another that recalled the "soft on communism" charges of Joe McCarthy or the early Richard Nixon.

Back to Mr. Santorum. A few months ago in this column, I wrote that if Mr. Santorum could emerge from the bottom of the Republican pack, he was the lone contender "who might appeal on any broad level to blue-collar folks" because he "mirrors Reagan's optimism, is strong on the cultural issues many working-class conservatives care about, and oh, by the way, is the only Republican talking about how to rebuild the country's imperiled manufacturing base."

So what does he do? He indeed emerges from the pack, focuses briefly on his blue-collar roots and manufacturing plan - and then starts telling folks hoping to move up in the world why they shouldn't aspire to have their kids go to college and giving detailed views on a range of sex-related issues. And he harangues John F. Kennedy, perhaps the political figure of the past half-century who most appeals to conservative, blue-collar and ethnic Democrats - the very voters Mr. Santorum needs.

At this point, perhaps the best the eventual Republican nominee can hope for from blue-collar conservatives is that they simply don't show up at the polls.

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.