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Clinton's Blue-Collar Support Wavering in R.I.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton  takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state.
Darren McCollester / Getty Images
Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage on Feb. 24 in Providence, R.I., in advance of the state's upcoming primary. Former President Bill Clinton was also scheduled to make a campaign stop in the state.

Pawtucket, R.I., arguably should be Clinton country.

As in much of Rhode Island, Pawtucket's residents are primarily blue-collar, union workers: mechanics, waitresses and teachers, who live in triple-decker homes or tidy bungalows that sit just a few feet apart.

Although the city of 70,000 has seen its share of old factories converted into loft apartments, the downtown's main attraction is a defunct cotton mill that dates back to the late 1700s and now doubles as a museum.

This is the type of town with the kind of voters who have supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in past primaries: the white working-class who make less than $50,000 a year.

But a recent local Brown University poll shows that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is making inroads in the state, the same week that he is also leading in nationwide polls for the first time. This is despite the fact that Obama has not actually visited Rhode Island, one of four states that will hold primaries on March 4. His campaign announced that he plans to stop in the state on Saturday.

Six weeks ago, Clinton had a 16-point lead over Obama in Rhode Island. Now, that margin has dwindled to just 8 points.

Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are making campaign stops in the state. They hope to solidify her advantage there. A victory in Rhode Island alone won't save Clinton's campaign: It offers just 21 delegates. But it could help if she only narrowly wins the larger March 4 primary states of Ohio and Texas, which have 141 and 193 Democratic delegates at stake, respectively.

On a recent chilly Sunday morning, Obama supporters canvassed in Pawtucket to try to close the gap between the two candidates even further. Toni Wynkoop, 38, and her two daughters were among the volunteers. Wynkoop said she felt inspired by Obama's speeches, as well as his health care plan.

One of her first stops was the first-floor apartment of 23-year-old waitress Megan Wagner, who has two young children and who works at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. Originally, Wagner supported Clinton because she wanted to vote a woman into the White House. Now, she finds herself leaning toward Obama as she examines the two candidates' health care plans. (Clinton's plan would require that everyone have insurance, paid for by a web of individual, government and employer money, while Obama's plan requires only children to get health care and then offers subsidies and tax credits for adults who cannot afford the plans).

"When I heard about national coverage, I thought that was what Hillary was going to be doing," Wagner said. "But if she is going to garnish wages, or doing whatever she has to do to cover that, whereas Obama is taking it and you are paying your own pay, you're probably better off."

A few doors down, 82-year-old registered Democrat Claire Lallier cautiously opened her door to the canvassers. She has not yet committed to either candidate, but she said she preferred Clinton.

"I think she's a real smart lady. She's a very good speaker, that's what I like about her," she said.

According to Brown University political scientist Darrell West, this split among blue-collar voters is happening across Rhode Island.

"[Obama] is starting to make inroads into her core constituencies," West said.

"I expect Rhode Island to be very competitive, certainly when you judge from the advertising," West said. "Clinton still has an edge, but Obama has the momentum on his side."

Although Obama is outspending Clinton three-to-one in advertising, Clinton has put in the face time.

She stopped in Rhode Island on Sunday for a roundtable on health care and a rally, where she talked about the economic issues important to Rhode Islanders: home foreclosures, health care and jobs moving overseas.

In her determination to hold onto the state's blue-collar voters, Clinton even risked alienating a big booster and Democratic superdelegate, the mayor of Providence, David Cicciline. The Clinton campaign asked him not to attend any of her three Rhode Island events, including a private fundraiser, because Cicciline is involved in an ongoing contract dispute with the local firefighters' union.

Union members saw it as a blatant, but ultimately effective gesture. "We think she's a good judge of character," said Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters' local 799. "It was a tough decision she had to make. She stood with the firefighters."

After the Clinton rally, several men wearing T-shirts and carrying printed signs bearing the names of their unions stood in one corner of the gymnasium. Scott Duhamel, the business representative for the local painters union, said his union's roughly 2,000 members are supporting Clinton — for now.

"We're supporting the senator for a number of reasons, largely economical," Duhamel said. "Two of the things that concern us the most are health care and the economy. We think she is probably the most electable. Although, I will tell you, quite clearly, we'll be there for whoever is the last Democrat standing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nancy Cook