WASHINGTON – Democrat John Kerry (search) "doesn't warm anybody up," and organized labor must help him create an emotional bond if fence-sitting union members are to vote for him in November, according to focus groups of undecided union voters.
But these union members find President Bush (search) likable and strong, "with a nice family and good moral values," said a memo of results prepared for the AFL-CIO and obtained by The Associated Press. The focus groups were conducted last month in St. Louis and Philadelphia by Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a Democratic firm.
The findings offer fresh evidence that Kerry's reputation for aloofness is a hurdle the presumptive Democratic nominee must overcome — even among his party's core constituencies. And despite the acidity labor leaders direct toward Bush and his policies, he still appeals to a segment of union members, namely the Reagan Democrats (search).
Though very early in the race, the focus groups highlight the work facing organized labor as it tries to energize and mobilize voters on behalf of Kerry.
Union swing voters are "one small slice" of the labor federation's 13.1 million membership, said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham.
"Our job is to make sure that they have the information to make decisions based on the issues rather than issues that are not particularly substantive," she said.
Labor's research shows that constant communication from their unions can bring undecided and swing members firmly into the Democratic fold. Leaders are putting unprecedented emphasis on them, betting those voters in battleground states will help them oust Bush in November.
In 2000, Bush won 37 percent of union household voters to Al Gore's 59 percent, according to exit polls. Those voters made up 26 percent of the electorate. The Bush administration's efforts to reach out to conservative, hard hat unions will pay off in November, said campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel.
"Labor union members will support President Bush because they, like other voters, will focus on leadership," he said. "President Bush has worked to create jobs for all Americans by growing the economy."
The focus groups found that Bush mostly escapes blame for the economic downturn and subsequent unemployment. But participants wondered if he had plans to deal with such issues. They also had "creeping doubts" about Bush's trustworthiness, such as the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and whether he really cares about working people, the findings said.
Meanwhile, most knew about Kerry's Vietnam record. It shows strength and inoculates on values, but Democrats "shouldn't obsess about it," the findings cautioned. Some participants found his role in protesting the war upon his return as negative.
"Seeing Kerry talk is important and reassuring — but he doesn't warm anybody up," the memo said. "Any mail pieces need to fill in facts and help build an emotional bond."
Kerry still must be introduced to many general election voters, said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "At the end of the day, voters are going to care about who is going to put the economy back on track. By in large, across the country, voters believe John Kerry is the only person to do that."
Democrats need to quickly "fill in a lot of information on Kerry" to protect against Bush attacks, according to focus group findings. The Bush campaign's portrayal of Kerry as a flip-flopper has started to stick.
"If possible, find more pictures of Kerry with working people and/or families to warm him up," findings said. "'Strength' pictures are also good to use."
Bush and Kerry are about even on who is more popular with the public, with about half of the public seeing each favorably. But when voters were asked in a recent AP-Ipsos poll which of the two is better described as a "strong leader," Bush was picked over Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin.
Bush's down-home style played well with some voters in 2000 in contrast to a buttoned-up Gore. But some experts think personality and likability are less important in this election.
Those issues matter a lot "in what we call small-issue elections," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "2004 is the ultimate big issue election. People are going to be voting on Iraq, the war and the economy, period."
The AFL-CIO will spend a record $44 million on get-out-the-vote efforts, concentrating heavily on battleground states. Florida, Ohio and Missouri top that list.
"While Bush can pull emotional strings" of the 2001 terrorist attacks, members realize he has "nothing to brag about at home," focus groups found. "Bush can only close the deal by making Kerry unacceptable."