President Barack Obama’s rejection of TransCanada (TRP) Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline permit exposed a split in a core Democratic constituency and handed Republicans a new line of election-year attack.

Unions representing construction workers condemned the move while labor groups including the United Steel Workers, the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union joined with environmental advocates in saying they support Obama’s decision. It also triggered swift criticism from congressional Republicans and the party’s presidential candidates.

“The Republicans’ argument that he’s trying to run a populist campaign firing up the liberal base and that this is all politics at the expense of jobs is going to be an important continuing issue through much of the campaign,” said David Gergen, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an adviser to presidents of both parties.

Obama is heading into his re-election campaign with the U.S. still rebounding from the worst recession since the Great Depression and an unemployment rate that has been stuck above 8 percent for almost three years. The economy will be a prime focus of Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 24.

The jobs promised by the building of the Keystone pipeline were central to union support for the project originally and the focal point of Republican criticism of Obama. TransCanada said the 1,661-mile (2,673-kilometer) project would carry 700,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast, crossing six U.S. states and requiring as many as 20,000 workers to build.

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