Despite polls, Romney camp sees opportunity in Pa.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, waves as he arrives at the spring reception for the Republican Committee of Chester County Tuesday, April 10, 2012 in Mendenhall, Pa. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, waves as he arrives at the spring reception for the Republican Committee of Chester County Tuesday, April 10, 2012 in Mendenhall, Pa.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

(CBS News) Though both sides are adept at putting the most favorable spin on their electoral prospects, strategists for the Obama and Romney campaigns largely agree on which so-called swing states are truly up for grabs and which ones clearly lean a particular way.

But perhaps the most glaring exception to that broad consensus is Pennsylvania, where the two camps are working under widely divergent assessments of how the race is shaping up.

Despite earnest assurances that they are taking nothing for granted, a commonly held view among the president's re-election team is that the Keystone State is all but in the bag. Romney's team, on the other hand, has long been eyeing it as a realistic and potentially decisive pickup for the Republican challenger.

"When you talk about Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign is going to roll their eyes," said Romney's political director, Rich Beeson. "They don't know it, but it's rotten underneath for them."

At first glance, there is little empirical evidence to back up that claim.

The president has been ahead in every Pennsylvania poll since Romney became the GOP nominee, and he leads the Republican challenger by seven percentage points in the latest RCP polling average.

A Republican presidential candidate has not won there since 1988, though it has served as fool's gold for every recent GOP nominee. In 2008, for example, John McCain's campaign continued to push hard push in Pennsylvania long after they had given up on other states he had hoped to take from the Democratic column, such as Michigan.

More frequently than elsewhere, the campaign dispatched Sarah Palin to Pennsylvania, where the vice-presidential nominee chided Obama for his remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser, in which he referred to small-town Pennsylvania as a place where people "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Republican attempts to exploit the apparent cultural gap that had played a role in Obama's Pennsylvania primary loss to Hillary Clinton did not work, as the Democratic standard-bearer won the state by a convincing 10 percent margin over McCain.

When asked about the Romney campaign's insistence that Pennsylvania is in play this time, laughter may be the most common response from Democratic strategists. What typically follows is the boilerplate (if undeniably true) addendum that the president's campaign is taking nothing for granted there.

The Obama camp has long had a massive ground operation in the state and has aired TV ads as well, though it recently scaled back its paid advertising effort.

Romney, on the other hand, has not yet aired any general election ads in the state.

Mary Isenhour, a longtime Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania, said she hopes the opposition campaign truly believes it has a viable path in the state, so that they will spend money there in vain.

"Up until the very end, most people are going to say it's a swing state, and anything can happen between now and November," Isenhour said. "But I think the president's numbers that we're seeing right now are really good, and something dramatic would have to happen to change that."

In addition to the encouraging poll numbers, Obama strategists are quick to note the trump card the president carries in the form of Scranton native Joe Biden, whose visceral appeal to blue-collar voters becomes apparent with each "God love ya" and "I'm not making this up, folks" that he utters during frequent visits to hardscrabble locales in the state.

If Romney does capture Pennsylvania in 2012, one line of thinking goes, that result would all but certainly herald a national blowout for the Republican, so why bother investing seriously there when other swing states will make or break a close election?

But Romney strategists envision what they say is a realistic scenario whereby the former Massachusetts governor loses one or two tossup states (where recent demographic shifts have created shaky terrain for a GOP presidential candidate) but more than makes up the difference by pulling off a Pennsylvania upset.

For instance, Romney could negate potential losses in both Nevada and Colorado (whose combined electoral votes total 15) by winning the Keystone State's 20 electoral votes.

Romney's commitment to Pennsylvania has been evidenced by his five trips there since May, and campaign strategists say that TV ads might begin after Aug. 29, when the candidate officially becomes the GOP nominee following a roll call vote at the Republican convention in Tampa.

At that moment, Romney's massive general election war chest will become available for the final two months of the campaign.

The Obama camp is particularly skeptical about the chances of a late Romney push, but one reason to believe otherwise is that very few Pennsylvania voters -- in contrast to those in other swing states -- cast their ballots before Election Day.

Only 4 percent of Pennsylvania's votes were cast early in 2008, a number that is expected to be repeated in 2012.

Republicans and neutral observers alike have questioned the methodology of early polls in the state that have shown Obama comfortably ahead, and they point to several factors that have tilted the political landscape toward the GOP.

Citing a declining voter registration deficit with Democrats and particularly strong pushback against the president's policies on coal and natural gas -- energy resources that fuel the economy in large swaths of the state -- local Republicans hope that Pennsylvania will prove to be hospitable terrain for a Republican nominee who hails from the northeast.

"If we win Pennsylvania, it's done," said David James, a Romney strategist in the state. "There's no scenario for President Obama to win without Pennsylvania."

Another potentially key factor is that former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell -- whose heralded political operation was widely credited with helping Obama draw a record turnout around Philadelphia -- is no longer in office after being succeeded by Republican Tom Corbett in 2011.

But what many Republicans expect to be their strongest card in Pennsylvania is one that they are often reluctant to tout: a new voter identification law that requires a specific form of identification in order to cast a ballot.

The law is considered the most stringent of its kind in any swing state in the nation and could cut significantly into Obama's margins in the state's largest city.

"The bottom line is Philadelphia is incredibly impacted by that law, and it could have a real effect," said KDKA-Pittsburgh political editor Jon Delano, a longtime analyst of Pennsylvania politics.

Delano, who considers the state to be "very much in play," said that there are no reliable projections on the extent to which the voter ID law might depress turnout among Obama voters, but there is no doubt that Republicans see it as a major boon to Romney's hopes.

At a June GOP rally, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai sparked outrage among voting-rights proponents when he trumpeted the new law as an accomplishment that would pay political dividends to the Republican nominee.

"Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done," Turzai said, eliciting cheers from the partisan crowd.

A Pennsylvania judge is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law next week.

Despite Democrats' alarm over a statute that they worry could disenfranchise large numbers of urban voters, there is little doubt that Pennsylvania remains the president's state to lose.

But with the convention speeches, debates, and a possible Romney advertising blitz on the horizon, there is ample reason to believe that the dynamic is in fact fluid.

"There is a way in which Mitt Romney can win," Delano said. "I don't think he's there yet."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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