With less than a month left until the Pennsylvania primary, the state is bracing for a flurry of activity it hasn't witnessed in more than 30 years -- including a local visit from former President Bill Clinton.
Pennsylvania campaign spokeswoman Emily Cain said Bill Clinton will be in State College, Pa., Thursday to promote his wife's campaign but that no further details would be available until Tuesday.
"It's the first time that we're going to make a difference since 1976," said Abe Amoros, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "Pennsylvania will be a crucial victory for either of the candidates."
As the contest for the Democratic nomination comes down to the wire, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., are in an all-out battle to sway Keystone State voters.
"We believe that the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue goes right through the state of Pennsylvania," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, said in a recent conference call.
As a result of this newfound importance, Pennsylvanians have been turning out in record numbers to register in order to have an impact on the April 22 primary. Today is the last day to register for the primaries and join the 83,923 voters already registered in Centre County.
Throughout Pennsylvania, Democrats have been turning the tide with an increase of 111,000 registered voters for the party since November. In contrast, the number of registered Republican voters in Pennsylvania has decreased by more than 13,000 during the same time period.
Since the beginning of the year, 57,000 Pennsylvania voters changed their party affiliation to Democrat while just 10,000 changed their registration to Republican, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
In Centre County, Pa., this year, Democrats have gained 1,700 voters while Republicans have gained 150. According to the state's most recent data, there are 33,192 Democrats and 36,634 Republicans in Centre County.
Michael Stewart, president of Penn State Students for Barack Obama, said he is trying to close that gap, adding that his group has registered more than 2,000 Penn State students as of last week.
"I can tell you right now, we will close that gap, and there will be more Democrats than Republicans in Centre County," he said.
On campus, the Penn State College Democrats, coupled with Represent, a non-partisan voter registration group, has been seeking to register as many students as possible for the primary, said Samantha Miller, spokeswoman for the College Democrats. The group is also working to get the presidential candidates to visit, she added.
"Unofficially, they're both going to make an appearance at University Park," Miller said. "With six weeks in Pennsylvania, not making a stop at Penn State would be a poor choice on both their parts."
With Obama currently holding the lead for the number of pledged delegates and superdelegates -- 1,622 to Clinton's 1,485, according to CNN.com -- the campaign is gearing up for a fight to the finish.
"We are the underdog here in Pennsylvania, and we recognize that, but we look forward to the challenge of competing here," said Matt Lehrich, Obama's Pennsylvania spokesman.
However, a memo sent out March 12 by David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, read, "The Clinton campaign would like to focus your attention only on Pennsylvania, a state in which they have already declared that they are 'unbeatable.' But Pennsylvania is only one of 10 remaining contests, each important in terms of allocating delegates and ultimately deciding who our nominee will be."
Gov. Ed Rendell, a superdelegate who has pledged support to Clinton, points to the memo as evidencethat Obama is downplaying the significance of Pennsylvania.
"For the Obama campaign ... to diminish the importance of the state's primary election, is really sort of off-putting to me and, I think, to a lot of Pennsylvanians," he said during a recent conference call.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., an Iraq War veteran, is one of the few superdelegates in the state pledging support to Obama and wrote in an e-mail that Obama is continuing to pick up momentum among Democrats, Republicans and independents, as well as young voters.
"Senator Obama is a once-in-a-generation type of leader," he wrote. "This election is a unique and historic opportunity to support a candidate who is looking to the future and will deliver real change."
With 158 delegates and 29 superdelegates, the Pennsylvania primary will be an important win for either candidate, said Mark Nevins, Clinton's Pennsylvania spokesman.
"It's going to be a hard-fought campaign," he said. "Both sides understand the importance of Pennsylvania. I think it's going to be close."
For Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, the state provides a chance to see who is more likely to win the general election, he said.
"We believe fundamentally that it provides a very significant test of who can really win the general election," he said. "We believe that this will again show that Hillary is ready to win and that Senator Obama really can't win in the general election."
Both Hillary Clinton's brother and father graduated from Penn State and her father played football for the Nittany Lions, Nevins said.
Her Scranton, Pa., ties, where she spent many a summer with her grandparents, will be important for primary voters, he added.
Leading up to the primary, Clinton, as well as Obama, will be crisscrossing the state, which Rendell said is not clearly Democratic in general elections.
"This is not a solid blue state. This is a purple state, and we need a candidate who can win here, and that candidate is Senator Clinton," Rendell said.
Rendell said Pennsylvania's primary provides a "true test" of a candidate's national appeal.
"It's a state that is as diverse as the nation, a perfect microcosm," he said.
Greg Stewart, co-chair of Obama's Pennsylvania field team, said that with proportional delegate selection, where delegates are given to each candidate based on the number of votes received, Pennsylvania is not a "must-win" state.
If Clinton won the primary with 55 percent of the popular vote, the delegates would be split between herself and Obama, he added.
"At the end of the day, we go into Pennsylvania having more delegates than Senator Clinton does, and we leave Pennsylvania having more delegates," he said.
However, Penn wondered what it means if Obama cannot secure a decisive win in Pennsylvania's primary.
"I think that if he can't win Pennsylvania, it raises serious questions about whether he can win a general election," he said.
As it looks more and more likely that the nomination could be decided at the Democratic National Convention, held in August, superdelegates are shoring up their support for candidates.
For Rendell, winning the White House in November is the most important goal.
"As a superdelegate, I want to make sure we can win in the fall, and I'm going to take the candidate who I think has the best chance to win in the fall," he said. "I think the country desperately needs change, and Senator Obama and Senator Clinton are far superior with the plans they're offering to Senator McCain."
While some politicians have argued that the drawn-out race will divide the Democratic Party, Rep. Murphy wrote that he believes the opposite is true.
&qut;Enthusiasm is up; voter turnout is up; and voter registration -- especially in Pennsylvania -- is through the roof," he wrote. "I think that no matter who our nominee is this fall, we are going to unite behind that candidate and we're going to win the White House."
For Republicans, the concern is whether the ongoing battle between Obama and Clinton will take attention away from the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"John McCain, himself, has complained about the fact that our contested primary is keeping him out of the American public's attention," Rendell said.
However, Michael Barley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said the ongoing Democratic battle allows McCain to raise money for his presidential run and begin organizing his campaign.
Also, Barley said he believes the drawn-out battle will be beneficial to Republicans in terms of dividing Democratic voters.
"I think the way this fight's gone, it's been very divisive, and I think it's going to be very tough to draw both sides back together in terms of Clinton and Obama supporters," he said.
As the race for the Democratic nomination continues, and the general election draws closer, one fact is certain: Voters have to make a very important decision.
© 2008 Daily Collegian via U-WIRE