PHILADELPHIA – Pennsylvania hasn’t voted Republican for president since 1988. Democrats have increased their registration numbers here by more than a half-million over the past year and Barack Obama has a double-digit lead in the polls.
Yet the McCain campaign continues to signal it intends to contest the state and its 21 electoral votes to the end. It is a high-risk, high-return endeavor: Pennsylvania represents a costly gambit, one that siphons resources from must-win states such as Ohio and Florida, but a win here would enable McCain to lose a few other states that George W. Bush carried and still capture the White House.
So with 23 days until Election Day, the state finds itself at the epicenter of the presidential campaign, with both sides spending precious time and money trying to energize their respective bases and drive up their opponents’ negatives.
For Obama, that means trying to offset white, working-class voters’ uneasiness with him by hammering McCain as out-of-touch on their economic struggles, and driving a huge turnout here in the state’s most populous city, where he spent Saturday barnstorming four neighborhoods.
For McCain, it means courting the politically competitive but historically Republican suburbs ringing Philadelphia, as well as the industrial and rural parts of the state that carried Hillary Clinton to a nine-point victory over Obama in the April Democratic primary. The McCain campaign believes it can sway voters in those areas by emphasizing a socially conservative message and branding Obama an elitist liberal with shady past associates.
Thus, McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, spent Saturday morning in Johnstown – an industrial area in southwestern Pennsylvania dominated by the type of older, white, working-class, socially conservative voters who favored Clinton over Obama in the primary – where Palin blasted Obama’s support for abortion rights as “absolutely radical.”
Referencing Obama’s comments that he wouldn’t want one of his daughters to have an unwanted pregnancy and be “punished with a baby,” Palin said “it's about time we called him on it.”
Later in the day, Palin – a self-described hockey mom – dropped the ceremonial first puck at the Philadelphia Flyers home opener.
On Tuesday, Palin will campaign in Scranton, the population hub of northeastern Pennsylvania, where Clinton crushed Obama. The Obama campaign has signaled it will vigorously contest the area despite the Illinois senator’s weak primary performance there, in part by using vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has touted his own family roots there.
Biden will stump in Scranton Sunday with Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, a schedule that will bring Biden’s total days campaigning in the state to five – same as Palin.
Including Saturday’s whirlwind day on the hustings, Obama has spent six days campaigning in Pennsylvania since securing the Democratic nomination in June, compared to 12 in that time for McCain, who plans to hold an event Tuesday in the populous Philadelphia suburbs.
The Obama campaign believes its economic message – and its attacks on McCain’s stances on the issue – will resonate in the economically depressed industrial areas around Scranton and Johnston, and also in the broad swath of the state stretching through its center and along its northern border, known as “the T.”
But it also plans to continue deploying both Biden and Clinton – who will be in the Philly ‘burbs Monday – as Obama’s ambassadors to Pennsylvania’s working class whites.
The Obama campaign’s efforts in Pennsylvania and other targeted states are aided by its financial advantage over McCain, which have allowed it to flood the airwaves with ads and the streets with paid and volunteer staffes.
McCain has also poured considerable resources into the state--in the week after last month’s GOP convention, he outspent Obama on Pennsylvania television ads $1.6 million to $950,000 and he spent the same amount again in the first week of October.
The problem is that Obama dropped $2.2 million in the first week of the month, his third highest total behind Ohio and Florida, and his campaign has 79 offices in the Keystone State--nearly twice McCain’s total, which could give Obama an edge in the get-out-the-vote battle.
Nowhere will that be more important for Obama than in heavily African-American Philadelphia, where Obama on Saturday drew an estimated 60,000 people to four rallies stretched across the northern part of the city.
“I need North Philly. I need all of Philly,” Obama told about 5,000 supporters gathered outside the iconic Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia, a collection of working-class white ethnic neighborhoods that Clinton carried in the primary.
At one rally, in a North Philadelphia neighborhood near Temple University, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the popular former Philadelphia mayor who backed Clinton in the primary, warned the crowd of 20,000 that Obama would need a massive turnout in Philadelphia to carry the state.
"In the primary, only 53 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia turned out," Rendell said. "Ladies and gentlemen, 24 days from today, 53 percent will not cut it. It will not cut it. If we want to make sure Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, we need to turn out at least 75 percent.”
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry crushed President Bush in the city by more than 400,000 votes on his way to winning the state by about 144,000 votes. Since then, Democrats have increased their voter registration edge substantially in the city.
Rendell told reporters after a rally in city’s Germantown section that his goal is for Obama to drive a historic turnout in Philadelphia and then to meet or exceed Kerry’s showing in Pittsburgh and the rest of the state. Rendell predicted the best opportunities for improvement are in south central Pennsylvania, which is becoming less conservative as it absorbs population from Philadelphia, and traditionally Democratic northeastern Pennsylvania.
Still, Rendell said that when a Quinnipiac University poll came out last month showing Obama leading by 15 points, “I shuddered, because I don’t believe for a minute that we’re 15 points up” and “we can’t be overconfident for one second.”
Likewise, Team McCain said it hasn’t been tempted by the recent polls to pull out of Pennsylvania like it recently did from Michigan, where polls had showed Obama leading McCain only by high-single-digit margins.
"We pay attention to our own polls," Mark Salter, a senior McCain aide told reporters Saturday. "Pennsylvania looked much better than Michigan."