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Labor Unions Echo Ohio’s Wider Divisions Over Primary

March 3, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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With polls showing Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton running a tight race in Ohio, the debate among Ohioans over which candidate to back in Tuesday's primary is being echoed from the Buckeye State's solidly Democratic labor unions. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JIM LEHRER: On the Democratic race in Ohio, Judy Woodruff spent the last several days there listening to union members and other voters. Here is her report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time in decades, the Buckeye State has a big role to play in choosing the Democratic nominee for president.

HILLARY CLINTON VOLUNTEER: As you know, we only have a few days left until the election is held here in Ohio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because of a crowded primary calendar, the campaigns have had only a few weeks to get organized. Coming in, Hillary Clinton had the advantage: double-digit leads in the polls less than a month ago.

BARACK OBAMA VOLUNTEER: Hi, I’m from the Obama campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with a national string of wins behind him, Barack Obama is now nipping at her heels. Volunteers say they will knock on a million Ohio doors before tomorrow.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. And no place in Ohio is more closely contested than Cleveland, which has the largest concentration of Democrats in the state.

Ohio has lost over 200,000 jobs just in the last seven years, the worst since the Great Depression. That makes the economy and jobs top issues here, and it heightens the role of labor unions, whose members could make up 35 percent to 40 percent of the turnout in tomorrow’s Democratic primary.

Gina Knapp, a school bus driver in Madison, belongs to an Ohio affiliate of AFSCME, the government employees union, which has endorsed Clinton.

GINA KNAPP, Clinton Supporter: I’m Gina Knapp.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As she canvassed union households in west Cleveland late last week, she got questions about Clinton’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

GINA KNAPP: OK, well…

OHIO VOTER: The NAFTA thing really concerns me.

GINA KNAPP: Does it?

OHIO VOTER: Yes.

GINA KNAPP: Well, you know, she did say in her debate that she was going to check into that, because it wasn’t working, but she would look into it.

OHIO VOTER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Knapp is not discouraged.

GINA KNAPP: I always have thought of Hillary Clinton as a good candidate because she has been our first lady. She has done a lot for the working class and the labor class. And I just feel that her as president would be for the working people.

Obama makes some inroads

Vince Bertonaschi
Butcher
Actually, I'm not thrilled with anybody running now, Republican or Democrat, but I think that I would have to go with Hillary Clinton over Obama because I don't think he's got enough- I don't think a couple years in the Senate is enough experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ohio unions have split their endorsements between Clinton and Obama, and some have chosen not to endorse at all. Polls show Clinton has a large lead among union households, but that's not slowing down the pro-Obama unions.

UNION MEMBER (singing): We're going to make history...

GROUP OF UNION MEMBERS (singing): We're going to make history...

UNION MEMBER (singing): ... and put Obama in the seat.

GROUP OF UNION MEMBERS (singing): ... and put Obama in the seat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In downtown Cleveland, members of the Service Employees International Union prepare to hit the streets for their man.

Nursing home aide and mother of three Samara Knight.

SAMARA KNIGHT, Obama Supporter: Health care is a big concern for me because I don't have health care. And I think everybody, every American, everybody, whether you work or you don't work, I believe should be entitled to have health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is Senator Obama saying about those things that appeal to you?

SAMARA KNIGHT: I like his plan for health care. I like how he wants to make it universal. I also like how he wants the parents to have responsibility for their kids having health care until the age of 25.

He says, I believe if you're going to school, if you're in college, I don't believe you should have to worry about health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But even with her enthusiasm, Knight, like AFSCME's Gina Knapp, finds many union members either not at home or a hard sell.

SAMARA KNIGHT: That's OK. We urge you to change your mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Polls show that jobs, health care and the Iraq war are the motivating issues for voters. At the West Side Market in Cleveland, butcher Vince Bertonaschi often votes Republican, but not this time.

VINCE BERTONASCHI, Butcher: I can't go with McCain because he said if it takes 100 years to do this in Iraq -- I don't like our soldiers walking around with a bull's eye on them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're looking at the Democratic primary. So what do you think of the two candidates who are still in there?

VINCE BERTONASCHI: Actually, I'm not thrilled with anybody running now, Republican or Democrat, but I think that I would have to go with Hillary Clinton over Obama because I don't think he's got enough -- I don't think a couple years in the Senate is enough experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Baker Michelle Vigh says she's voting for Obama because she thinks he has the best plan to create new jobs.

MICHELLE VIGH, Baker: The economy here is poor. There's been so many factory jobs and manufacturing that has left here. And people have left. Half the population of Cleveland has gone elsewhere because there's just no employment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama is outspending Clinton in television and radio advertising, but both stress why they'd be better on this issue that is uppermost in the minds of Ohio Democrats.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: We can say to the companies, "We're taking away your tax breaks if you ship jobs overseas. We're going to give those tax breaks to companies that invest right here in Ohio."

JUDY WOODRUFF: At Talan Products, a small manufacturing plant, Obama's advantage with male voters showed up and there were echoes of the Illinois senator's television ads.

TONY ARCHIBALD, Ohio Voter: He's concerned about our jobs, concerned about our jobs going to overseas, and the NAFTA trade agreement, we need to have the money invested here.

NATE MOORE, Ohio Voter: I like the fact that he's going to start taxing companies that take jobs out of the states and put them overseas. I like the fact that he's going to give us a tax break for keeping jobs in this area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton has been running ads with the very same message.

CLINTON AD NARRATOR: She'll get tough on unfair trade deals and end tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Standing up for people who weren't getting a fair shake, that's been the purpose of my life, and it will be the purpose of my presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That resonates with this former Ford engine plant worker.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL, Clinton Supporter: We need the federal government to back us, because right now we've had this Bush administration that has done nothing but back corporate America. We need a president that's going to back not just union America, but working America, and I think Hillary's the best choice.

Voters split on change, experience

Shawn Gray
Obama supporter
I'm voting for Barack Obama. I think he's young, and I think he's going to add some new, innovative ideas that we need, because this country is pretty much shot and we need help. We need help, and we need a change. We need a drastic change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A poll released yesterday by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer showed that 43 percent of likely voters felt that experience was the most important quality for a candidate. And of those, 85 percent thought Clinton had the most experience.

And that was what we found when we stopped in at the Yorktown Lanes in the working-class neighborhoods of Parma, just outside Cleveland. This is the very definition of the voter base Clinton has to carry to win.

SANDY BARAONA, Clinton Supporter: I like what she stands for. She's a strong woman. And I think that I like her platform on health care and that and education, because it's a lot about education for me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And was this a tough decision for you or pretty easy?

SANDY BARAONA: I think it was pretty easy, because I've been watching her all along in the Senate and that, and I really think that she's good for our country. I really do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of Clinton's supporters give her credit for things President Bill Clinton did and seem to let her count it as her experience.

VICKI KAISER, Clinton Supporter: She's a strong woman, strong, and I voted for her husband twice. I liked what he did for the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Senator Obama, your thoughts are what?

VICKI KAISER: I really don't know much about him, and that kind of scares me. And he's young. I know a lot of people say he's like John F. Kennedy, but I just don't trust it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Conversely, those who didn't like Bill Clinton's administration were more likely to support Obama.

Did you consider Senator Clinton?

AL KRUPA, Ohio Voter: Not really.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

AL KRUPA: Never a big fan of the Clintons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

AL KRUPA: Just didn't like the way he ran the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The same poll found that 40 percent of Ohio voters felt that bringing change to the country was more important than experience. And of those, almost three-fourths felt Obama would bring more change.

SHAWN GRAY, Obama Supporter: I'm voting for Barack Obama. I think he's young, and I think he's going to add some new, innovative ideas that we need, because this country is pretty much shot and we need help. We need help, and we need a change. We need a drastic change.

Clinton counting on women voters

Gladys Reydman
Clinton supporter
We need somebody who can the day she sits in that place knows what she's doing, and Senator Clinton does. And it's scary in this world that we might get a novice in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever happens with union members here in Ohio, polls show Clinton enjoys the same advantage she has most everywhere else with women voters. We stopped in at a gathering in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Shaker Heights and found plenty of passion for her candidacy.

LANA MORESKY, Clinton Supporter: And when we see Hillary, we see ourselves in Hillary, I think, all of us do. When we see unequal treatment of her in the media, I think that we project that also onto ourselves.

GLADYS REYDMAN, Clinton Supporter: We need somebody who can the day she sits in that place knows what she's doing, and Senator Clinton does. And it's scary in this world that we might get a novice in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But even at this meeting, organized by the women's rights group NOW, there were a handful of skeptics.

CHRISTINE HOWEY, Ohio Voter: Well, I would like nothing more better than to vote for a woman for president, but I'm leaning toward Obama. The issue I guess that I wanted to ask about is her vote on the Iraq war and then her vote on the Iran -- you know, declaring the militia terrorists.

LANA MORESKY: We don't know all the different nuances when you actually then have to make that vote. And I really believe, if Barack Obama was in the Senate at that time, he would have voted for the war, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton is counting on women like these and labor union members and the troubled Ohio economy to give her campaign new life.

Meanwhile, the Obama camp acknowledges that a voter registration deadline in this state of one month ago has undercut the ability he demonstrated in other primaries to get new voters to the polls.