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The '08 Juggernaut: Reagan Democrats

By Salena Zito

They were the defectors of the late 20th century who twice swept Ronald Reagan into office in landslide proportions: ethnic working-class Northerners, typically Catholic with traditional values and populist tendencies.

Nearly 30 years after they first split from their party, Reagan Democrats are once again at the epicenter of an election cycle.

These Reagan Democrats left their natural base in the 1980 presidential election because their party was no longer their champion. Thanks to a sour economy, weak national security and political pressure groups that hijacked the Democrats' agenda, they jumped ship in favor of Reagan.

Since then, these habitual ticket-splitters have largely been ignored by their party of birth.

Until now.

Hillary Clinton's brilliant pitch to the right in the New Hampshire primary debate last week left no doubt.

"She scared me because I thought that she did so well," said Charlie Gerow, GOP political strategist, uber conservative and former Reagan campaign staffer. "I was sitting there watching this thing, and I thought, 'Geez, there must be something wrong with me -- I agree with Hillary Clinton.' "

Democrat strategist Steve McMahon knows these voters are "the key to electoral success in national elections."

"When Hillary said abortion should be 'safe, legal and rare,' and makes a big point about how 'rare' is as important as 'safe' and 'legal,' she is talking to the Reagan Democrats," said McMahon.

The Democratic Party defines Reagan Democrats as values voters -- people who vote more on the basis of values than issues.

In 2005, Howard Dean was the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee and saddled with a party weakened after years of national losses. Determined to turn the tide, he commissioned a massive poll with Cornell Belcher aimed directly at values voters.

After poring over the polling data, Dean recognized a couple of things:

* First, Democrats did not speak about their faith -- but they should.

* Second, when Democrats talked about abortion, they didn't emphasize that it should be a last resort. While Democrats needed to protect the rights of women, they also needed to talk about taking care of every child brought into the world -- an aspect on which Republicans are perceived to fall short.

Dean took his poll to the party's leadership and to labor leaders. He pointed out that while swing voters do share Democrats' values, the party was not speaking to them in the right way.

Dean's mission became to link things in a way that makes it more difficult for cultural conservatives to walk away from Democrats.

The challenge for both parties is similar: dealing with the control of the primaries by the parties' extremes. For Democrats, it is their bloggers who want out of Iraq tomorrow; for Republicans, it is the extreme pro-lifers.

If Republicans want to win, they should remember that Reagan, as president, never let the abortion issue define what it meant to be a Republican. He was against it but he never took steps to make it harder to obtain.

The more each party must run to its corners and defend what mainstream America considers extreme positions, the harder it becomes to win over Reagan Democrats.

Republicans need to give citizens a reason to vote for them and against Democrats.

Democrats just need to give citizens a reason to vote for them.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at

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