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Dancing with Hardhats: Bush's Strategy Starts to Work

For a union leader who backed Al Gore for President in 2000, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa is getting the royal treatment from the Bush White House. He sat in the Presidential box at the 2002 State of the Union Address. He gets biweekly audiences with White House political director Ken Mehlman. And he recently was named to an Administration task force on workplace issues. "We have better access to the Administration than we did to the Clinton Administration," says Hoffa. "We have a very open relationship."

Hoffa is hardly the only labor official with the President's ear. In recent months, the Administration has teamed up with steelworkers, auto workers, carpenters, and other building trades on union priorities--from imposing tariffs on imported steel to creating a labor-backed tax break on pensions. What's more, Bush aides have asked conservative firebrands in the House to avoid holding hearings that attack unions.

It's all part of a White House charm offensive designed to split hardhats from more liberal service employees and government workers, whose ties to the Dems are deep and strong. The targeted union member is a patriotic, socially conservative, blue-collar male earning $40,000 to $75,000 a year. "Whether we agree or disagree [on every issue], there's an open door" for labor, says Mehlman.

The potential benefits for the President and the Republican Party are significant. Because hardhats are concentrated in the key industrial states, White House operatives believe that a small increase in their support could help tip Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin toward Bush in 2004. In the shorter term, better relations with the rank-and-file might bolster Republicans in their bid to hold on to the House this November. And Bush aides think closer ties to certain unions could make all the difference in upcoming legislative showdowns over such issues as energy policy.

The White House outreach has paid some early dividends. The Teamsters union has already endorsed two GOP House candidates in Michigan, freshman incumbent Mike Rogers and current Secretary of State Candice Miller. And on Capitol Hill, labor's muscle helped beat back an attempt by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to raise car-mileage requirements by 50%.

Bush isn't the only Republican cozying up to labor. At a recent union dinner, New York Governor George E. Pataki was embraced by left-leaning labor chiefs such as Dennis Rivera of the service employees, Bruce Raynor of the garment workers, and John W. Wilhelm of the hotel workers.

For the pro-business President, the outreach to labor carries surprisingly little political cost. One reason: On most matters where he has worked with unions, from steel to textiles, industry is on the same side of the issue. "They've worked out a situational accommodation," says Millersville University political scientist G. Terry Madonna. "The President gets what he wants. The unions get what they want."

Bush's new strategy complicates the close relationship between AFL-CIO officials and their longtime allies in the Democratic Party. While union leaders would prefer a Democratic Congress, they want to encourage more Republicans to cast pro-labor votes. "Some union members may see that they should be Bush Democrats for a while," says Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Dems will try to minimize defections by pointing out that Bush and the Hill GOP still side with business--and against labor--on most issues. But if enough hardhats cross over, they could be the Republican edge come Election Day. Campaign finance reform was designed to dilute the influence of special interests. But Indian nations aren't bound by new rules limiting candidate donations to $25,000 a year. And unlike political action committees, the tribes, which pull in some $5 billion from gaming and gave about $3 million to federal candidates in the 2000 elections, don't have to disclose the source of their money. It likely didn't hurt that Native Americans strongly support reform champion John McCain (R-Ariz.). It's nearly two years until the 2004 Presidential election, but Senator John Edwards (N.C.) is earning a rep as the Dems' best self-promoter. According to a survey by The Hotline, a nonpartisan newsletter, Edwards has wangled eight invitations to keynote Jefferson-Jackson state party fund-raising dinners. His top rivals on the rubber chicken circuit: Senator John Kerry (Mass.), with five invites, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), with four. Former Vice-President Al Gore has done just two J-J dinners, but they're the big chicken enchiladas: Iowa and New Hampshire. Bush strategists sees a new chance to win congressional approval for a top priority--health insurance tax credits. The vehicle: a Democrat-backed plan to provide assistance to workers who lose jobs to foreign competition. Congress dropped health insurance credits from the stimulus bill it passed in March. But Bushies think Dems may accept the plan in exchange for backing the worker-assistance bill.

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