AFSCME in the catbird seat

Democratic candidates are having a hard time gaining advantage among women and union members, two groups that could determine who wins the Iowa caucuses on Thursday. The two top Republicans are in the same near-deadlock when it comes to voters who say the next president should be a fiscal conservative.

Women break even for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama — 32% apiece in a new Des Moines Register poll — despite Clinton's appeal as a pioneer and her push for women's support. And for all their union endorsements, Clinton and former senator John Edwards are in a three-way tie with Obama among labor households.

"I like what she says. I like it that she's a woman," Beth Davis-Fleming says of Clinton, who is endorsed by her union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). But Davis-Fleming, 61, of Marshalltown, is a precinct captain for Obama.

On the Republican side, the Register poll shows former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, besting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney almost 2-to-1 among voters who say it's more important for the next president to be a social conservative.

Those who prefer a fiscally conservative president are a larger group — 41% in the poll versus 26% who say they prefer a social conservative. Romney has just a slight edge among the larger group in the Register poll, leading Huckabee 29% to 25%. That's despite his business background and heat Huckabee has taken from the anti-tax Club For Growth for raising some taxes as governor.

John Gilliland, senior vice president of the 1,300-company Association of Business and Industry, says Romney built an early business base but then became preoccupied with defining himself on social issues. Other candidates gained ground, he says, and now "we have members in nearly every camp."

Fiscal conservatives "are all over the map. There's no consensus" on a candidate, says Don Racheter, head of a free-market think tank in Mount Pleasant.

Republican women are divided about equally between the two top Republicans. Clinton, the only woman running on either side, has not been shy about using her gender to mobilize women. "I feel really comfortable in the kitchen," she joked in a speech last fall after warning rivals, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Some women say they're thrilled to support a candidate who is tough, smart and also someone they can identify with. "We need all the perspectives we can get. And she brings a new perspective," says Carolyn Ahlstrom, 68, a retired psychiatric nurse from Story City.

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a Clinton adviser, predicts she'll win among women on caucus night because "they see her as a champion." Yet other candidates have their appeal. Clinton "would be a great president, but we've got to send a message to the world that we've got a new order in the White House," says Karen Engman, 58, of Des Moines, who backs Obama.

Jana Neff, 48, of Ankeny, says people should not make choices because they identify with someone's race or gender: "You vote for the candidate whose goals you support." Her choice is Edwards because "he has a passion about accomplishing things."

On the labor front, Edwards has the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers unions, and statewide endorsements from the Service Employees International Union in Iowa and 11 other states. Clinton counts the government employees union AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers and at least a half-dozen other national unions in her corner.

Official union support translates into volunteers on the ground and millions in spending. AFSCME, for example, has financed an automated phone call critical of Obama's health care proposals.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe took aim in a weekend memo at what he called "underhanded" spending by outside groups, mostly unions, to the tune of nearly $5 million.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee wrote at The Huffington Post website that unions are not special interests — "we fight for the general interest" — and said AFSCME had given money and volunteers to past Obama campaigns.

The spat underscores the distinction the Obama campaign makes between union leaders and their rank-and-file. "We have support among union members who respond to Obama's message," Obama strategist David Axelrod says.


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