Chasing the mythical Reagan Democrat

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain often pays tribute to Ronald Reagan. Now he is courting wavering working class Democrats who helped put his hero in the White House.

McCain was in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday — the current ground zero of the tense Democratic race — a week before launching a tour of corners of America where Republicans often fear to tread.

He was laying down a marker in one of the states likely to decide November’s presidential election, hot on the trail of fabled “Reagan Democrats.”

“Pennsylvania remains a battleground state, there is no doubt about that,” McCain told reporters here.

“I will travel all over America and compete in every part of America … we will be going to places where not only no Republican candidate has ever appeared, but no presidential candidate has ever appeared.”

The Arizona senator is offering glimpses of his general election strategy, seemingly geared to the assumption that Democrat Barack Obama will finally oust Hillary Clinton and be his opponent in November.

He is targeting white, blue collar voters in gritty rust-belt states, blighted by economic pain, whom Obama has struggled to attract in his fight against Clinton.

McCain, a plain-spoken military veteran who bears the scars of his Vietnam war service, may be a good fit with this socially conservative constituency, which is leaning toward Clinton in the Democratic race.

The “Reagan Democrats,” who deserted their party to back ex-president Reagan in 1980 and 1984, are a key swing vote, in several swing general election states — including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The reasoning behind McCain’s strategy was revealed in a Quinnipiac University poll of Pennsylvania Democrats published Tuesday.

“One out of four Clinton voters, including a third of men, say they will vote for Republican Senator John McCain in November if Obama is the Democratic candidate,” said the University’s assistant polling director Clay Richards.

The poll found that self identified “Reagan Democrats” were backing Clinton 55 to 40 percent ahead of the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

McCain joined Clinton in jumping on Obama’s comment last week that some rural working class voters turned to God and guns when economic times were hard, arguing these were the exact same people who fought America’s wars.

“I think those comments are elitist,” McCain said on Monday.

“That’s a fundamental contradiction of what I think America is all about.”

Clinton says she is the only Democrat who can win this core constituency in November, despite trailing Obama in the nationwide nominating race.

And McCain’s pitch to this bloc is already influencing the Democratic race.

Andrew Dowdle, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Clinton’s former home state, said she would argue that African Americans and affluent liberals who generally back Obama will vote for whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee.

“What she has got to end up proving is that she can win those swing constituencies, especially working class whites,” said Dowdle.

So a big win here in Pennsylvania is vital.

“It (would) give her more legitimacy to claim that she is the candidate who can really move Democratic voters to come out,” said Professor Tom Baldino, of Wilkes University, Pennsylvania.