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The Next America - Politics 2012 / NEXT AMERICA

The Fight for Joe the Plumber

A big challenge for Obama is the quest for the white, blue-collar vote.

Blue-collar workers, like a Cleveland laboror, are a key demographic for President Obama.(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

photo of Beth Reinhard
May 16, 2012

The fight for Joe the Plumber is alive and well.

Barack Obama is targeting white, blue-collar voters - who largely eluded him in 2008 and were personified by the aforementioned John McCain supporter -- in a powerful new ad airing in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia.

The hunt for the white, blue-collar vote continues to be one of the biggest challenges for President Obama, adding to the considerable pressure on his campaign to pump up turnout among educated and minority voters. A recent Gallup poll found Romney whopping Obama among white voters without a post-graduate education, 56 to 34 percent.  Recent Quinnipiac surveys in Ohio and Pennsylvania found Obama trailing by eight and nine percentage points, respectively, among white voters without college degrees.

So how does the Obama campaign persuade these working-class voters to reconsider the president? By trashing presumptive nominee Mitt Romney as a greedy corporate titan who profited on the backs of middle-class workers.

Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, said Romney's record at Bain Capital will be a target over "the next few weeks.'' The goal is to take Romney's biggest asset in a sluggish economy - his private sector experience - and turn it into a liability. The Obama campaign used this line of attack against Romney throughout the primary to try to define him early on.

The auto bailout represents the other opening the Obama campaign sees in going after working-class voters, which not coincidentally was the subject of television ads released by the Obama campaign last week. The ads sets the stage for Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Ohio on Wednesday and Thursday, which will include stops at a manufacturing facility in Youngstown and a family-owned car dealership in Martins Ferry.

In a telephone call with reporters on Monday, Cutter tried to make a distinction between criticizing Romney's private equity experience and what she called its "values and lessons.'' Her parsing is an attempt to avoid the backlash faced by Romney's former rival, Newt Gingrich, when he took on Romney's record at Bain.

 "No one is challenging Romney's right to run a business he saw fit,'' Cutter said. "This is about whether Romney's business experience qualifies him to make the right decisions as president.''

The new ad features poignant testimonials from former employers of GST Steel, a struggling mill in the Kansas City area bought by Bain Capital in 1993.  The mill's 750 workers eventually lost their jobs but Bain still walked away with a multimillion-dollar profit. Romney had left the company by then but had overseen the takeover.

"Romney and his partners didn't know anything about making steel, but they did know about balance sheets,'' said David Foster, the lead negotiator for the workers at GST Steel, who joined Cutter on the call with reporters.

"All they were concerned about was money,'' said Joe Soptic, a former employee, who said the new ownership dismissed workers' health and safety concerns.

The Romney campaign responded to the new ad by pointing to President Obama's economic stimulus program, which boosted a solar panel company that went bankrupt and has failed to push unemployment below 8 percent. Romney can also point to a Bain-funded success in the steel industry, an Indiana company called Steel Dynamics.

"We welcome the Obama campaign's attempt to pivot back to jobs and a discussion of their failed record,'' said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "If the Obama administration was less concerned about pleasing their wealthy donors and more concerned about creating jobs, America would be much better off. "

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