- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2008

The Republican Party is going after blue-collar voters and other key blocs that traditionally support Democrats but did not back Sen. Barack Obama in primary contests, a top party official said.

The party also is aggressively pursuing female, Catholic and Hispanic voters - groups that lean Democrat but which Republicans think could defect this year to likely Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said Frank Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“We have to go beyond [the conservative base] in this election, and we are doing that,” Mr. Donatelli told The Washington Times.

He said Mr. McCain’s reputation as a Vietnam war hero, national security hawk and crusader against government waste is appealing to white blue-collar voters, a bloc that switched sides in the 1980s and earned the moniker “Reagan Democrats.”

“I think we are going to get a larger share of that vote than any Republican candidate since Reagan,” said Mr. Donatelli, who worked as a White House political adviser to President Reagan.

He said Mr. McCain will have an advantage “anywhere there is a large concentrations of working-class Democrats and independents. Those are key targets.”

It’s part of strategy that will focus on 18 key states, including the usual battlegrounds, such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania; other new swing states, such as Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Wisconsin; and some traditionally Democratic states, such as Oregon and Washington, Mr. Donatelli said.

Democratic leaders remain confident that the more blue-collar voters and others learn of Mr. McCain, his policies and his record - which includes voting against increases to the federal minimum wage - the less they will like him, said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney.

“John McCain is not a friend of American workers,” she said. “John McCain has not been someone who stood up for American workers and American jobs. … They will see Senator Obama is the right choice.”

The Obama campaign, which declined repeated requests for comment on the Republican strategy, often turned off white working-class voters during the grueling primary against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

Mrs. Clinton this week is expected to campaign alongside Mr. Obama for the first time in support of his candidacy, working to help him with key blocs that mostly backed Mrs. Clinton in the drawn-out primary battle.

But Mr. Obama got in hot water with blue-collar America by complaining at a private April fund-raiser in San Francisco that small-town voters were not supporting him because they are “bitter” and “cling” to guns, religion and nativism.

His credibility with working-class voters also was strained in February by reports that a top aide secretly told Canadian officials to ignore Mr. Obama’s campaign rhetoric threatening to scuttle the North American Free Trade Agreement - a promise aimed at Rust Belt voters convinced the trade deal killed jobs.

The issue came up again over the weekend in an interview with Fortune magazine, in which he toned down his anti-NAFTA comments, saying that “sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified” and that rather than opt out of NAFTA, he would “open up a dialogue” with Canada and Mexico.

Mr. McCain blasted Mr. Obama’s NAFTA stance Friday in Ottawa, saying it was “nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls.”

Mr. Donatelli predicted blue-collar voters would tilt the election to Mr. McCain in the battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania and in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia - all places where Mr. Obama lost primaries to Mrs. Clinton, the latter two by lopsided margins, largely a result of his failure to connect with working-class whites.

The outreach to blue-collar voters and other traditionally Democratic groups will not come at the expense of energizing the party base, which must turn out in large numbers to win in what is expected to be a very close election, Mr. Donatelli said.

It is devoting substantial recourses to ensure evangelical and conservative groups are “engaged and comfortable with our campaign strategy,” he said.

“That is a staple of our campaign from the very beginning,” he said. “We are a conservative party, and we want to make sure our strongest supporters are going to be there.”

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