Welcome To 'Swingtown'

Allentown, PA.
This is the first in a series of election-year reports from Allentown, Pa., by CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod:

Nestled in the Lehigh Valley, Allentown, Pa., could be Anytown, USA. A place where fortune smiles on some – and fate frowns on others.

This is America in microcosm: urban, suburban, rural; roughly the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans; the same ethnic and religious mixes. This is the swing region in a swing state with 21 electoral votes up for grabs.

In the last five presidential elections, voters here have practically replicated the national popular vote right down to the percentage point.

Louis Bellitieri's father started a restaurant here half a century ago. Bellitieri knows everyone there is to know in Allentown and what they're thinking, six months before the election.

"Health care is the biggest issue," he says without hesitation. "I know that is. That is the number one topic."

He adds, "It seems to me like a lot of Republicans are undecided that they're going to follow Bush and Democrats are saying, 'Who's this guy Kerry?'"

Schoolteacher John Annoni is one of those Republican undecideds.

"I'll continue to think about it," he says."That's my job. That's my job as a voter."

Annoni grew up poor in Allentown's rough section. While not exactly on Easy Street, he's doing pretty well now.

"There's a term called 'ghetto rich,'" he says. "You know, when you don't have anything and you get a little, life's good."

So why would he want to change anything?

"My boy," Annoni replies.

Annoni sees everything through the prism of the future. But just a few miles up the road, Richard Sterner needs help right now.

"Everybody told us, 'Don't worry, it's guaranteed, it's guaranteed,'" Sterner says. "There's one thing that's guaranteed – you're going to die."

Like thousands of others, Sterner lost his job when Bethlehem Steel closed its plant here. He lost his benefits when the company went bankrupt. He's 61 now, doing odd jobs, no hope for a comfortable retirement – and a list of problems a mile long.

How much are his problems the fault of politicians? "99.99 percent," Sterner says.

These are stories from one place in America known to reflect thousands of others. Watching the next half a year unfolding here could be a window into what will happen the first Tuesday in November.