Friday, July 23, 2004

AURORA, Colo. — Sen. John Kerry spoke about the plight of the American worker when he traveled to Detroit earlier this week, a safe message for the blue-collar workers who build cars there.

So it was a little strange that the campaign picked as its press-pass logo for its Motor City tour the gleaming showcase car of a foreign auto company — Rolls-Royce — that makes cars priced far outside the financial reach of any middle-class voter.

“That’s an insult to the auto worker, it’s an insult to the American worker, it’s an insult to mainstream America,” said Sam Burwell from Corunna, Mich., a third-generation auto worker for General Motors. “It also shows who he’s really in touch with: his European, elitist French friends and not Americans like me. A Rolls-Royce, for cryin’ out loud.”

The Kerry-Edwards traveling press pass was designed by Mr. Kerry’s campaign advance team in Michigan and distributed to the reporters who flew with him to Detroit to attend the 2004 National Urban League Conference. Dominating the pass is the photograph of a Rolls-Royce 100EX, an opulent convertible complete with the famed “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament.

Asked about the press-pass logo, Kerry spokesman David Wade said it was unintentional error by a campaign volunteer and then criticized President Bush’s economic policies.

“I could say that the Rolls-Royce is the perfect symbol of who got the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, but sometimes objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear,” he said.

“Under President Bill Clinton, our strong economy actually helped bring Rolls-Royce jobs to the United States for American workers,” Mr. Wade said. “Now, with health care costs rising and no end in sight under George Bush, American automakers say they may have to outsource jobs overseas. That’s why John Kerry’s health care plan offers relief to American companies and hope for the United Auto Workers who are fighting to put John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House.”

While Detroit’s auto industry has become more globalized in recent years, it remains locked in a fierce fight with foreign competitors over automobile market share here and abroad. Auto workers are zealous boosters of their American cars and are deeply suspicious of foreign trade.

A campaign cornerstone for Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, has been protecting American workers from foreign competitors. They often blame President Bush for the flow of American jobs overseas.

Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said the Kerry campaign may have thought that since Mr. Kerry was addressing the Urban League, a civil rights organization, and not an auto industry group, such a snafu would go unnoticed.

“The whole reason the black population, or just about any population, is here is because of the auto industry,” he said. “It’s a bone-headed play by Team Kerry.”

In addition to being a foreign-built car — Germany’s BMW, which now owns the legendary luxury automaker, built the car in Munich — the image of such a luxury car undermines the message Mr. Kerry wants to convey.

As the Yale-educated son of a diplomat who married ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry — who is worth more than $500 million — Mr. Kerry already faces some obstacles connecting with America’s middle-class workers.

“Kerry needs to spend the campaign not behaving like an elitist and not giving voters a reason to remember that he and his wife have a lot of money,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “It doesn’t help him connect with the average voter.”

The Rolls-Royce press pass reminded Miss Duffy of the time former President George Bush didn’t recognize a grocery store scanner.

“It’s that kind of thing,” she said. “It makes him look elitist and out of touch.”

The Rolls-Royce 100EX — an experimental car not in full production yet — features cashmere lining under the hood and dark Curzon leather upholstery, mahogany and teak wood inside the passenger cabin.

“Nobody wants to care for bleached teak wood decking, which is liberally used inside and out on the 100EX,” Christian J. Wardlaw wrote earlier this year about the car for Autosite car buyer’s guide. “Then again, if you’re buying a Roller, chances are that caring for it is someone else’s job.”

The only Rolls-Royce in production today — the Phantom — starts at $324,000.

“The Detroit trip was right after his Nantucket trip, right?” asked Miss Duffy, referring to Mr. Kerry’s summer home on the exclusive island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts. “Maybe it was a tough transition for him.”

Yesterday, Mr. Kerry began his tour across America from his birthplace, an Army hospital here in Aurora. The “Journey on America’s Freedom Trail” will conclude at the Democratic National Convention next week in Boston.

“We have an economic plan that will revitalize manufacturing, put America back to work and create new, good-paying jobs,” Mr. Kerry said yesterday. “We value an America that exports products, not jobs.

“We value American workers and we will give them a level playing field,” he said. “Because if you give American workers a fair playing field, there’s no one in the world that the American worker can’t compete against.”

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