Clinton And Obama Court Western Pennsylvania Voters

PITTSBURGH--The St. Patrick's Day Parade here has a reputation for being a raucous affair. Thousands of green-clad revelers take over downtown Pittsburgh to watch the 139-year-old parade filled with marching bands and Irish-themed floats. They guzzle green-tinted brews at Market Square. And wait in long lines for a Primanti Bros. Sandwich, the western Pennsylvania equivalent of the Philadelphia cheese steak.

But this year, amid the whirl of green chaos, there was an added element--presidential politics.

Hillary Clinton was on site Saturday wearing a green scarf and accompanied by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and prominent Pittsburgh Democrats. She turned the parade, which drew in more than 200,000 people, into a minipolitical rally. Supporters of Barack Obama were there too, holding up green signs alongside the parade route and making sure members of the crowd were registered to vote in the potentially deadlock-breaking April 22 Pennsylvania primary.

And while the candidates and their surrogates have campaigned predominantly around Philadelphia and Scranton, the presence of politics at the Pittsburgh parade signaled that primary season in western Pennsylvania is officially underway. Clinton received shining endorsements at her first major appearance there from two prominent Pittsburgh Democrats. On Friday, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl publicly endorsed Clinton at an event in Oakland.

"Who said young people aren't supposed to vote for Hillary Clinton--" asked Ravenstahl, who at 28 is the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city. "I'm happily supporting Hillary Clinton."

His youth played well into Clinton's speech as she queried, "How many of you have college debt you're paying now?" As audience members' hands fluttered upward, so did the young mayor's. And Clinton used the moment to discuss a program that would forgive students' debt if they went into public service, including "mayoring."

Clinton's visit Friday drew in an assortment of Pittsburghers, but didn't draw in a large college crowd from the adjacent University of Pittsburgh because students there were on spring break.

Clinton and Obama are both counting on a win in Pennsylvania to set the tone and direction of the close Democratic primary race where Obama is ahead in pledged delegates but Clinton is coming off a spurt of momentum built by big wins in Ohio and Texas. Clinton remains ahead in the state thus far, with a recent Rasmussen poll showing her leading Obama by 13 points. But with the Pennsylvania primary more than a month away, Clinton and Obama, along with Bill, Chelsea, and Michelle, will have plenty of time to crisscross the Keystone State vying for the support of Pennsylvanians. St. Patrick's Day is only the beginning, as Obama makes his first appearance on the Pittsburgh side of the delegate-rich state today.

By Nikki Schwab