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Clinton hunts an elusive political prey: white male voters

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke Saturday in Youngstown, Ohio.AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

HATFIELD, Pa. — Hillary Clinton would like to discuss some football.

“My dad played football at Penn State,” she reminded a crowd in Hatfield, Pa. during her swing through the Rust Belt. “My brother played football at Penn State.”

Bill Clinton came along to stand sentinel onstage, adjusting his schedule to linger a day longer than planned among his wife’s chief skeptics: the voters who look like him.

And during the bus tour’s three-day slideshow of American brawn — a whir of iron, hard hats, factory dust, and well-placed American flags — even Hillary Clinton’s entrance music had changed: She was now taking the stage to a Motown classic, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

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In her first general election road trip after accepting the Democratic nomination for president, when she took stock of her historic feat as “my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother,” Clinton rumbled by bus through the heart of the white male resistance.

There is no group that views Clinton with greater antipathy. A New York Times/CBS News poll two weeks ago found that white men preferred her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, to Clinton almost 2 to 1, 55 percent to 29 percent. (White women were split at 40 percent each.)

Yet in these two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which Trump will almost certainly need to win the presidency, Clinton aides sense an opportunity to put him on defense. They need not catch Trump among white men, or even come particularly close. But chipping away could be decisive, given their massive advantages among nonwhite voters in cities like Philadelphia and Cleveland.

“Donald Trump needs to prevail in the very regions we crisscrossed this weekend,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton, noting that Trump would be campaigning in some of the same areas this week. “As this bus trip shows, we are not conceding a single county, a single town, or a single voter to him.”

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Traveling in a bus emblazoned with her “Stronger Together” slogan, Clinton wound past urban hoagie hubs and heaps of hay bales, moldering rowhouses and cows indifferent to a droning motorcade.

She appeared with her two top ambassadors to white men: Bill Clinton and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Although Bill Clinton spoke only briefly from the stage, introducing Kaine in Harrisburg, he remains a peerless worker of crowds. In Johnstown, Pa., he held forth with employees at a manufacturing company beside a massive spool of wire. In Youngstown, Ohio, he gabbed with voters until both members of the Democratic ticket had disappeared from view.

Hillary Clinton has summoned the full range of her folksiness, signing autographs on hard hats and talking up her own red-blooded culinary tastes.

“Hot peppers!” she shouted at one point to the Youngstown crowd, stuffed inside a high school gym just before 11 p.m. Saturday. “I started eating hot peppers back in ’92. I’m still eating them, and I’m still standing, and I’m still ready to go to the White House!”

A sign near the stage carried reason for hope among Clinton partisans: “I am male, white, over 40, Southern Baptist pastor,” it read. “And I’m with her.”

Others remain holdouts.

In interviews in recent weeks at events across the country, several undecided white male voters described a persistent, visceral dislike of Clinton, by turns lamenting her embrace of President Obama, her desire to increase gun restrictions, and what they see as her consistent aversion to the truth.

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“Stop fibbing,” said Ted Schaible, 61, when asked at a toy factory here what could persuade him. “It costs a lot of money to track down those fibs.”

Schaible, a retired carpenter, had joined his wife, Cheryl, a vocal Clinton supporter, at the event. He allowed that Clinton’s jobs-focused speech had included some appealing touches.

Clinton’s team might settle for such a split in white households. The campaign is generally underperforming relative to Obama’s 2012 numbers with white men, leading aides to believe there are still minds to be changed. But she is outperforming Obama with white women.

In particular, the campaign is targeting college-educated whites, a group that Mitt Romney won handily four years ago. Clinton’s relative success with this portion of the electorate has improved Democratic prospects in states like Colorado, where the Clinton campaign recently pulled ads in a sign of growing confidence.