PITTSBURG – After envisioning Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama stumping from one end of the state to the other, dipping into diners and delis, all but taking up residence here in the run-up to the state’s critical April 22 primary, Pennsylvania Democrats are teetering on the edge of a letdown.
Having seen far less of Clinton and Obama than they had expected and nearing the halfway point between the last contest in Mississippi and their big primary day, they want to know: Where’s the love?
“We feel neglected here,” said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who has not yet endorsed a candidate. “People just assumed that, because they had such a long period, they would spend a lot of time in the state.”
Indeed, many Pennsylvanians expected the state’s suddenly consequential primary would be bigger than Iowa and better than New Hampshire.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Clinton has campaigned seven days this month in Pennsylvania. Obama held events on only three days, though he is set to increase his presence Friday when he sets out on a six-day bus tour that starts in Pittsburgh and ends in the Philadelphia area.
Pennsylvanians can hardly be blamed for being disappointed. This was shaping up to be the rare year where this late-voting state mattered – or so residents thought.
Now they read the news stories that quote Obama aides saying Clinton has wrapped up the state. They see clips of Obama at campaign stops in Indiana and North Carolina and Oregon, even lounging poolside in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“He seems to be every other place than Pennsylvania,” Pawlowski said. “The fact that he hasn’t been around is a downer for a lot of his supporters. I know there are many here.”
Pawlowski, who has been reluctant to endorse before he meets the candidates, gives Clinton credit for spending more time in the state. But he has watched her fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to Scranton without stopping in his city, the third-largest in the state.
“They were expecting a New Hampshire experience,” Pawlowski said. “You would walk in a diner and there would be a candidate, shaking hands. Even though it’s a big state, they could have criss-crossed the state and spent time one on one.”
The question of Obama’s commitment to the state caused something of an uproar this past week on Pennsylvania Progressive, a popular liberal blog operated by John Morgan, who has worked as a paid consultant for the Berks County committee supporting Clinton.
Kirk Wentzel, a contributor to the blog who describes himself as an Obama supporter, aired his concerns under a post titled, “Desperately Seeking Barack.”
“He needs to get his face in front of the people,” Wentzel said in an interview. “I hope there is a strategy, but from my standpoint, hearing what is coming out of the campaign – ‘we will try to do our best’ – that is not a message I want to hear. That makes me want to quote Yoda from an old Star Wars movie: ‘Do, or do not. There is no try.’”
To political observers, the strategy is clear.
Obama, as the underdog in Pennsylvania, needed for several weeks to downplay its importance. His aides stressed it was just one of 10 states and territories left to vote, and that the Illinois senator would spread his time among them.
“The Obama campaign is doing rope-a-dope in Pennsylvania,” said Kenneth Lawrence, a Philadelphia public affairs consultant active in Democratic politics. He was referring to the boxing technique that involves putting oneself in what appears to be a losing position before emerging as the eventual winner.
“There was a conscious decision on their part to make Pennsylvania seem like a forgone conclusion for Hillary,” he said. “They have done a good job now – they are probably going tobe able to outperform the expectations. If they can pull off a surprise here, it will be that much more damaging.”
But supporters are wondering if Obama, by spending most of the last three weeks elsewhere, squandered an opportunity. If he had truly put down roots in the state, perhaps he could have dealt the final blow to Clinton’s campaign.
“If he ends up losing Pennsylvania by two or five points, then yes, he obviously should have gotten here sooner,” Lawrence said. “That is why some of the volunteers have been complaining that he hasn’t been here enough.”
Michael Young, a Hershey pollster, said he’s heard the same buzz.
“It’s enough that it’s gotten my attention and sustained my attention,” Young said. “Part of it is trying to puzzle out what he is doing.”
The chairman of Obama's western Pennsylvania steering committee, Clifford Levine, acknowledged that "voters are hungry." The calls he received from people seeking tickets to Obama's town hall event Friday in Pittsburgh was "more intense than a Steelers playoff game," Levine said.
"Everybody is dying to see him -- he has not been [here]," he said. "You are immersed in this dynamic race. You want to see him."
By most measures, Obama faces a tough road ahead in the state.
Clinton holds a comfortable lead in every poll and travels the state with the popular Democratic governor, Ed Rendell. Voters know and like her, giving the New York senator her highest favorability ratings ever in the latest Franklin and Marshall College Poll. The dominant demographic groups – blue collar, white and ethnic – favor Clinton.
Still, Obama is investing in the state.
His campaign has opened 25 offices, placed a significant TV ad buy – reportedly $2 million worth – and spent weeks registering thousands of new Democratic voters. Volunteers have descended on the state.
The campaign has sent one of its top operatives, Paul Tewes, who served as Obama's state director in Iowa and Ohio, to Pennsylvania to take over operations here.
"Now that the voter registration deadline has passed, we have moved into the next phase of our campaign in Pennsylvania: get out the vote," Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Thursday.
"[The] whole assumption that he is not focused on Pennsylvania is a misnomer," Levine added. “He is just not willing to redefine the election" as something other than a delegate race.