Operatives order members to oppose GOP

Expansive union effort to peel away votes

Jim Wasser, an electrician from Kankakee, Ill., stands defiantly, hands on hips, wearing a bright orange International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers T-shirt with a message from the AFL-CIO to 400,000 of its union members in key swing states. "John McCain? War hero? Absolutely," says Wasser, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). "Voice for working families? No way."

Worried about McCain's appeal among its members and even more worried about Sen. Barack Obama's difficulty attracting white, non-college-educated working-class voters, the AFL-CIO is spending $53.4 million to reach 13 million of its members and their families. The plan is to try to peel them away from McCain by persuading them to vote their economic interest, which they say would be hurt — not helped — by McCain.

As soon as he seemed to be closing in on the Republican nomination for president this winter, organized labor began polling its members and holding focus groups to find out what people thought about the Arizona senator.

"They had a lot of respect for his service to the country, but were unclear about his positions on unions and unclear about his positions in general," said Karen Ackerman, political director for the AFL-CIO. "They felt he was a maverick and took positions different from the Bush administration. They had a favorable view of him."

Support of Democrats

At the same time, McCain has spoken frequently about his desire to find support among "Reagan Democrats" — the white, blue-collar voters in industrial sections of the country who helped Ronald Reagan win the White House in 1980.

"He's probably in the best position of anybody since Reagan, just looking at his popularity, his favorable ratings," said Charles Black Jr., McCain's chief strategist, adding that McCain shares similar views on social issues and national security with many blue-collar workers.

Asked why working-class voters would support him, McCain said recently that he would offer them a safe and prosperous country, and noted he has sharp differences with Obama.

"I won't tell them that in small towns across America and in Pennsylvania that they are bitter and angry about their economic condition, so therefore they embrace religion and the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," McCain said in a dig at controversial comments Obama made at a fundraiser in San Francisco. "I will never do that, because I know why they embrace their constitutional rights and I know why they embrace their religion because of the fundamentally good and decent people that are the reason why America is the pre-eminent nation in the world today."

'An American hero'

Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which specializes in swing-state polling, called it smart politics by the AFL-CIO to give its members information that might turn them away from McCain.

"Many of these people were reluctant to vote for Obama in the primary; they were looking for an alternative and now McCain is the alternative," Brown said. "He's not a hard-line conservative; that's attractive. He's an American hero. These are people who respect the military and military service. He has kept his distance from a president who is incredibly unpopular with this group."

McCain was a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down over Hanoi and spent 51/2 years as a prisoner of war, frequently tortured by his captors.

Joe Rugola, the AFL-CIO president in Ohio and international vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, began talking to his members in March about McCain by knocking on doors, calling on the phone and distributing literature at work sites.

At the heart of his message: "Generally speaking, the senator has never met a trade deal he didn't love regardless of the impact on American workers and American families," Rugola said.

The union federation is using micro-targeting to determine which members are more interested in learning about health care or trade or the economy to ensure they get the information that will best convince them that McCain does not represent their interests. Labor officials are dogging McCain at his campaign events, raising questions about his policies. On Friday, following McCain's trade speech in Ottawa, Canada, the AFL-CIO organized a conference call for reporters with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to criticize McCain's pro-trade stance.

The labor federation also created a Web site, mccainrevealed.org, to show where McCain stands on issues.

In particular, the AFL-CIO has focused attention on five key states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Union households comprise 25 percent to 35 percent of the vote in those states, which have the potential to decide the election.

Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's deputy political director, said, "McCain's got to get non-college, working-class voters to come his way. That is going to be the battleground. If he's successful, he has a chance to be president. If he's not, there's no path to victory for him. The union program is really part of putting up a firewall against that. The only way he gets the majorities in a place like Michigan is through ignorance."

Mailers include such messages as "John McCain wants to tax your health care" and "John McCain thinks NAFTA was a good idea."

So far, Ackerman and Podhorzer believe the program has been working. In February, 57 percent of their members had a positive view of McCain. In April, it dropped to just 33 percent, according to polling conducted for the labor federation.

The general board of the AFL-CIO is expected to vote soon on endorsing Obama. And eventually their campaign against McCain will include pro-Obama messages.

Wasser, who served with Kerry on his first swift boat in Vietnam, spoke out against attacks on Kerry's war record during the 2004 election. Today, he said, he wants to be sure his fellow union members know the truth about where McCain stands on the issues that matter to them.

"I want people to see that they have to look at the real John McCain and not at the war hero," Wasser said. "I respect his service to this country. I don't know how he endured what he did. That was a superhuman thing. But I can't take another four years of a George Bush term."


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