WASHINGTON — If you want to talk about candidates borrowing from each other, consider how much Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are taking on loan from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, the affable populist killed in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election.

“I don’t represent the big oil companies. I don’t represent the big pharmaceutical companies,” Wellstone said in the final television ad of his last campaign. “I don’t represent the Enrons of this world. But you know what? They already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need it. I represent the people of Minnesota.”

And here’s Hillary Clinton in a television ad run during the Wisconsin primary campaign: “The oil companies, the drug companies have had seven years of a president who stands up for them. It’s time we had a president who stands up for all of you.”

As for Obama, he noted in Ohio this week that “year after year, politicians in Washington sign trade agreements that are riddled with perks for big corporations but have absolutely no protections for American workers. It’s bad for our economy; it’s bad for our country.”

Wellstone called for a trade policy that “doesn’t just work for the multinationals, but also works for the environment, for safe food, for living wages; a trade policy that promotes democracy and the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

No, this is not a column about “plagiarism.” On the contrary, it’s good news that both Clinton and Obama are echoing one of their party’s most effective practitioners of egalitarian, grass-roots politics. As the Democratic presidential primary campaign enters its climactic stage, both candidates are focusing like a laser on white blue-collar voters. The language of choice is populist.

This is salutary for Democrats. Middle- and lower-middle-income white voters will be among the most important target groups for both parties this fall, crucial in such swing states as Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. The economic interests of blue-collar whites largely coincide with those of African-Americans and Latinos, yet these groups often move in different directions. When they vote together, they can make their candidates invincible. By competing fiercely for blue-collar ballots now, Obama and Clinton are beginning a coalition-building process that Democrats typically embark on too late.

Until recently, Clinton had a decided advantage among whites of moderate income. Restoring a firm lead in this group is vital to her political survival in the March 4 primaries.

Obama, long aware of his weakness among these voters, put more focus on wooing them in recent weeks. The success of this effort — particularly among white male voters who were once inclined to support John Edwards, the uber-populist — has been important to Obama’s 10-state sweep after the Feb. 5 contests.

Obama’s strong support among affluent, well-educated voters put him in danger of being branded the candidate of “limousine liberals.” The term was coined in 1969 by Mario Procaccino, a conservative Democrat from New York City who cast himself as a champion of the white middle class and mocked Mayor John V. Lindsay’s alliance of well-off progressives and African-Americans.

In fact, the early Obama alignment resembled the successful coalitions of reform-minded African-American mayors elected in the 1980s and  ’90s. That may be no accident, since David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest advisers, ran a number of those victorious campaigns, notably in Obama’s Chicago.

In an interview, Axelrod argued that Obama had long ago transcended the contours of the urban politics of two decades ago, reaching into predominantly white, blue-collar precincts in his 2004 U.S. Senate primary. But it’s clearly become an Obama campaign imperative to match that performance this year.

Clinton will not just let this happen, and one of her most affecting recent campaign ads, called “Night Shift,” is an ode to working people similar to Jesse Jackson’s best speeches highlighting the contribution of those who “work every day,” from his 1988 campaign.

“You pour coffee, fix hair, you work the night shift at the local hospital,” says a warm-voiced male announcer on the Clinton ad. “You’re often overworked, underpaid and sometimes overlooked.”

Not this year, not at this moment.

Supporters of the free market often forget that we don’t just have a capitalist system; we have a democratic capitalist system. Democracy is what gives those on the short end of market outcomes a chance to talk back and, sometimes, to alter unjust market decisions. Paul Wellstone understood that. A big-hearted communitarian, Wellstone, I suspect, would be perfectly happy to lend Clinton and Obama all the good lines they want to use.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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