SCRANTON, Pa. — When Hillary Rodham Clinton rallied supporters Monday morning in this former coal town, there were fewer of the “Welcome Home Hillary” signs than there were six weeks ago when she began her push to re-energize her presidential campaign with another Scranton rally.
But campaign paraphernalia notwithstanding, Clinton, whose father grew up here and took her to a nearby lake for vacations, has long counted on Scranton — as well as neighboring northeastern Pennsylvania cities such as Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton — to give her a boost when Pennsylvanians go to the polls Tuesday.
That potential boost, though, has become more important for the New York senator since her first rally here.
That’s because her rival for the Democratic nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, seems to have closed what was once nearly a 20-point deficit in Pennsylvania polls to single digits. And for Clinton to win the Keystone State by a margin large enough to justify her continued candidacy, she’s going to need to rack up big victories in the heavily Democratic northeastern part of the state and a few other industrial areas to offset an expected Obama landslide in Philadelphia and its suburban collar counties.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed Clinton with her biggest regional lead in the northeastern part of the state: an impressive 30-point margin that might actually be on the low side. Compare that to the rest of the state, where Quinnipiac showed Clinton with a 51 percent to 44 percent lead, and the influence of Philadelphia is clear.
“People will be looking at Pennsylvania — and I will be looking at northeastern Pennsylvania,” Clinton said at Monday’s rally at the Scranton Cultural Center. The enthusiastic crowd of hundreds, which Clinton said sounded “more like a pep rally than a political” one, included her mother, Dorothy Rodham, two brothers, a sister-in-law and a niece. There was also an old family friend from Scranton who provided grainy footage of Clinton as toddler in Scranton that the campaign has used in an ad.
“I will never forget the people here,” Clinton said, imploring the crowd “make those phone calls. I need you to drive people to the polls. I need you to make sure that the last-minute canvassing is done. This is what will make the difference.”
Clinton’s list of regional targets also includes the areas around Pittsburgh in southwestern Pennsylvania as well as Erie and its surroundings in the northwestern part of the state.
But northeastern Pennsylvania is at the top of Clinton’s must-win-big list for three reasons. Her family ties may be the least of them, though they certainly feature prominently in her Pennsylvania campaign, from the toddler ads to her frequent references to her grandfather’s work in a lace mill here.
More important, though, are the area’s demographics and the support its local leaders are providing Clinton.
The area’s voters skew older, whiter, less educated and more union, Catholic and blue-collar than many other parts of the state. Clinton has consistently outpolled Obama among those groups, according to exit polls.
And Clinton’s 30-point lead in the northeastern Pennsylvania in the Quinnipiac poll, which the groups’ surveys have shown to be steady for more than one month, may underestimate her actual lead in the region. That’s because pollsters included the Lehigh Valley, which is south of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton and is considered a potential battleground between Clinton and Obama.
Clinton has lined up an impressive array of local backers, which can be particularly important in the Northeast, where vestiges of machine politics and patronage still loom large.
In addition to popular two-term Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, who introduced Clinton on Monday, she has the backing of Wilkes-Bare Mayor Tom Leighton. Clinton also is being supported by the Democratic Party chairman in Luzerne County, where Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton are located; the Luzerne commission chairwoman; Rep. Paul E. Kanjorksi, who represents Scranton and Wilkes-Barre; and most of the area’s state lawmakers.
Obama has the backing of two newly elected county commissioners in Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located. And he scored a coup when he picked up the endorsement of Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., who’s from Scranton and whose family name (his dad, after whom he’s named, was a popular two-term governor) is golden in the northeast.
But Casey isn’t known for his ability to mobilize a huge political organization and Doherty said local leaders like him can do more for candidates than Casey can.
“I’ve got 300 or 400 people that are going to be out working,” he said after the Scranton rally. “All these people you see here, they’re all part of my group for the last eight years. We are committed to this and to win. That’s the difference between being a mayor and somebody else. I’m out everyday. Everybody knows who I am. When I tell people I need you to do it, they’re going to do it.”
Plus, he pointed out, there are “1,000 people who work for the city — whether for the city proper or the authorities — and the mayor appoints those jobs.”
Obama is not conceding the area, though.
Fueled by his superior fundraising, he’s outspent Clinton on television in the northeastern Pennsylvania media market — as he has in the rest of the state. And he’s made at least four visits to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, while Clinton in recent weeks paid five visits to those cities.
Obama’s volunteers and canvassers have been more visible, said Ed Mitchell, a veteran Democratic operative in the area who’s not working for either candidate.
“In the last two weekends, I’ve gotten two pieces of literature dropped at my house from him and I haven’t gotten anything from her,” he said.
Obama “has a great ground operation under way up here,” said Mitchell. “He knows he has a chance to hold [Clinton] down here. I don’t think anybody doubts that she’s going to win northeastern Pennsylvania, but she might be concerned about how big she wins it.”
David Gaus, a 57-year-old retiree from outside Scranton who attended Monday’s rally wearing one a green “Welcome Home Hillary” shirt, predicted Clinton would win big in the northeast.
“There’s a lot of family history here,” he said. “Scranton people are behind Hillary because they know her politics. They know where she stands.”