Pennsylvanians are proudly military and fiercely blue-collar, although most of the mining and manufacturing jobs are long gone. Not even Bush's protectionist tariffs could save Bethlehem Steel, whose three-milelong millworks still stands, like the mother cathedral of some conquered religion. The Iraq war and the flagging economy aren't just pollsters' abstractions here: They're facts of daily life. Our friends drive an hour to work at bad jobs; our neighbors' kids got sent to Baghdad.
If you're President Bush, this is not a good thing. The discontent with his administration was running so high here in central Pennsyltucky that, in the weeks before the GOP Convention, something strange happened: Politics broke out. All of a sudden, you started seeing Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers in the Foodland parking lot. In little towns like Manheim and East Petersburg, lawn-sign skirmishes erupted on quiet, modest streets. "Our office is absolutely besieged," said Lancaster County Democratic Chairman Bruce Beardsley.
In late July, Kerry himself actually held a rally in Harrisburg—an insurgent strike in the heart of red Pennsylvania—and an overflow crowd of almost 20,000 showed up and waited two hours on the Capitol lawn for the newly anointed challenger. "Democratic candidates for president don't come to Central Pennsylvania," crowed Gov. Rendell, "because this is where Republicans rack up their huge majorities." This time, in fact, it was Kerry's first stop after the Democratic Convention. (Pennsylvania was also Bush's first post-convention stop.)
Right up until Labor Day, Kerry sat on a six-point lead in most polls; the original headline for this piece, in fact, was going to be "Swung." The numbers looked grim for the president. According to the August Keystone poll, 11 percent of his 2000 voters now said they were voting Kerry; one-third of Howard Stern's substantial Pennsylvania audience (in the Pittsburgh, Philly, and Harrisburg markets) said he'd persuaded them to switch from Bush to Kerry. (Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have more listeners statewide, but as Keystone pollster Terry Madonna notes, "Their audience is already on their side.") Even in the middle of the state, Bush was barely polling above 50 percent. But Kerry's numbers stayed weak. People weren't swinging; they were waiting—for a reason to vote for one side or the other. Unfortunately for Kerry, he hasn't been able to give them one.
Lately it seems like the candidates just won't leave us alone. Every other day, one or the other comes "barnstorming" through our innocent state. "It's almost like a race for city council," says Josh Wilson, political director for the state Republican committee. In one week in early September, Bush hit Bucks County and Johnstown, Kerry held a rally in Allentown, in the Lehigh Valley, and Teresa swooped through Harrisburg and Lancaster.
This is the one state where Tuh-Ray-Zuh might be a plus for Kerry: Her foundations have funded much of Pittsburgh's civic renaissance, and her affection for her adopted state is obvious. But Pennsylvania is also a state where Dick Cheney actually seems to help the president, as I see for myself one day in late August. I drive north into the mountains, leaving the prosperous farmlands of south-central PA for the hard anthracite ridges of Appalachia. This is Deer Hunter country, where the POW/MIA flag flutters over war memorials in town squares. Newspaper reporters always call this area "depressed," but it's really just sad. Along the Schuylkill River, I pass through dead and dying mill towns unredeemed (as native son John Updike has noted) by any sort of charm. On the other hand, one local coal mine displays an actual "Now Hiring" sign.
I end up in Pottsville, home to Yuengling, America's oldest surviving brewery, and the Crimson Tide of Pottsville Area High School, whose gymnasium is packed with more than 2,000 prosperous-looking Republicans. No president or vice president has visited Pottsville since 1960, but Cheney is about to fix that. The concrete, semi-underground, undisclosed-location-like basketball gym is humid with excitement.
The reporters sit politely at the back, behind a velvet cordon watched over by an icy blond operative; when her attention is diverted for a moment, I slip away and melt into the buttoned-down scrum in front of the stage. The old folks are sitting in the bleachers while the women have drifted to the back of the room; up here, in the mosh pit, the overwhelming demographic is white and male and ages 30 to 50. Dick Cheney isn't just the veep; here, he's a fashion icon. So we stand, waiting, our arms folded and our pink faces shaved, pretending not to ogle the Crimson Tide's excitable cheerleaders, who are on a riser stage left.
Now it's Dick's turn. He takes his place at the lecturn, opens a black binder, and proceeds to deliver the exact same corrosive stump speech he's been giving for two months: how he, like John Edwards, got his job for being "sexy" and having "great hair." How John Kerry "voted for [the $87 billion for Iraq] before he voted against it." The whole "sensitive" war on terror riff. At one point he says, "Sen. Kennedy—excuse me, I get them confused sometimes ... "
His speech is not just tired; it's practically been embalmed. And yet the guy next to me is going nuts. His name is Pete, and he drove an hour to be here. He's wearing a tie, too, so he's clearly got someplace else to go on a Wednesday afternoon, like a job. (In fact, he's the executive director of a local theater group, which must make for some interesting office conversations.) To each Cheney line, no matter how tired, Pete lets out a "Whooooo!"