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Clinton-country incursion

Obama's going after Latinos and blue-collar whites, two mainstays of her support, in Ohio and Texas.

February 18, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS — With the Democratic presidential race about to enter another crucial phase of voting, Barack Obama has launched a newly aggressive strategy to undermine two pillars of support for rival Hillary Rodham Clinton: Latinos and working-class white voters.

Each is an important constituency in major March 4 primaries -- Latinos in Texas and blue-collar workers in Ohio -- which many believe Clinton must win to keep her White House hopes alive.

In Ohio, Obama backers are courting local union leaders and members with promises that the Illinois senator will change U.S. trade policies enacted by Clinton's husband, and which the unions blame for severe job losses.

In Texas, Obama has launched a new effort to introduce himself to Latino voters as someone who understands their challenges, thanks to his background of attending college on a scholarship and working with churches as a community organizer.

Obama has also launched a new organizing campaign in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. One piece of that effort could be glimpsed at a Saturday-night celebration of a new Obama office in downtown Brownsville, about half a mile from the Mexican border. It drew about 200 supporters, a noteworthy crowd, the campaign said, for an event not attended by the candidate.

Latinos and blue-collar whites were largely elusive for Obama in the primaries and caucuses held so far. Clinton strategists believe the two groups form a natural base of voters for her that will carry her to victories in delegate-rich Ohio and Texas.

But exit polls from some of the most recent voting states, such as Virginia and Maryland, show that Obama has begun to narrow the gap not only with Latinos but with lower-income whites, who have been among Clinton's most loyal backers.

Youth appeal crucial

Now, the Obama strategy is to peel away as much of that base as possible, helping him to either win Ohio and Texas outright or at least split the states' delegations to the national nominating convention.

"This is, or it was, Clinton country," said Michael Rodriguez, 40, a Brownsville lawyer who helped open the Obama office here and now serves on the campaign's local steering committee. "We're finding people who were Clinton supporters and making them Obama supporters."

In going after both groups, Obama's appeal to younger Americans is proving important.

Union officials say that a push from younger members helped persuade the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers to endorse Obama last week. Both unions plan to be active in the campaign, making personal contact with their membership on behalf of Obama.

About 40% of the food union's members are younger than 30 years old, and their enthusiasm helped move the union out of neutrality and toward an endorsement, said union president Joe Hansen. "Barack Obama did something to our members and to our leadership," Hansen said.

In Texas, Obama is trying to take advantage of an emerging generational divide to bring more Latinos to his side.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Brownsville, where longtime state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. was an early endorser of Clinton and escorted her last week during a visit to the region. But Lucio's 29-year-old son, newly elected state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, is a top Obama organizer -- even though he grew up looking at family photos of his parents and grandparents with the Clintons.

"That was his generation . . . but this is my generation," said the younger Lucio. "This is the most exciting time for me ever other than my own campaign. Someday I can tell my grandkids that I worked on the Obama campaign, and they will be like, 'Wow.' "

One of two ads that Obama is airing in Latino radio markets in Texas is pitched explicitly at younger Latino voters. "Obama is talking to me," it says, "about the opportunity to go to college, and about ensuring my parents and grandparents have the healthcare they need. That's why I'm talking to others -- my parents, my uncles, and my friends" about supporting Obama.

Some local Obama backers say they have begun to see the Illinois senator, the son of an African father, as someone who can relate to the Latino experience.

'Kick the door off'

"I see more of myself in Barack than I do in Hillary," said Sergio Zarate, 46, who owns a chain of dry cleaning stores in the Rio Grande Valley and attended Saturday's party. "He's not just going to crack a glass ceiling. He can really kick the door off its hinges, and clear the way for all of us, even Hispanics."

Clinton has also begun running radio and TV advertisements in Spanish, and she made several appearances in the area last week.

Clinton backers predict that her connections here will negate the Obama efforts. The local Democratic Party chairman in Brownsville, Gilbert Hinojosa, is backing Clinton and said she could win 70% of the vote here -- simply because voters "remember eight years of Bill Clinton."

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