As McCain and Obama are discovering, Pennsylvania's Democrats and Republicans can be hard to tell apart.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 28 2008 6:25 PM

The Pennsylvania Party

As the candidates are discovering, the state's Democrats and Republicans can be hard to tell apart.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

(Continued from Page 1)

Consider Greene County, a bituminous stretch in the southwestern corner, bordering West Virginia and sounding a lot like it. Democrats have held sway there for generations because of the coal unions. And as coal jobs vanished and sons and daughters migrated to other states for work, what remained were retirees and older workers for whom pensions and Social Security obviated any economic issues. What remained were God, guns, and gays—issues patented in the last 20 years by the Republican Party.

These issues continue to hold sway throughout post-industrial Pennsylvania. But with the economy now tanking, it would not take a great deal to get these Pennsylvanians to revert to Democratic form. Similarly, those pro-business, pro-choice women in Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware counties near Philadelphia might worry more about Obama's tax plans than about McCain's promise to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

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Add to all this economy vs. values nonsense the fact that Pennsylvania is barely a state in any sense of cohesion. Candidates running statewide must buy into multiple media markets. There is the Scranton-Wilkes Barre region, where New York TV stations and Yankees caps abound. Monroe County, a never-win for the Democrats, could be turned on its ear by the arrival of—brace yourselves—New York Democrats fleeing stratospheric housing prices.

Then there are Philadelphians, who often view themselves as their own city-state. (Writer David Bradley, when I called him for comment on an election 20 years ago, told me, "Do you know what Philadelphia thinks the state is for? The lottery.") Erie and the northwest are as likely to tune into Cleveland or Buffalo as Pittsburgh. Central Pennsylvania breaks, both ethnically and culturally, into a couple of places, ranging from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Lancaster County voters have long been Republican, to isolated valley towns such as Johnstown, which exists as almost its own media market. (It is a small one.)

What Pennsylvanians have in common is their lack of commonality. And it is along those dividing lines that each campaign is hoping to work the plate tectonics of our 21 electoral votes.

Not many people see this dynamic as it is being worked out. One of the few who does is Rendell, the state's blunt-as-a-knuckle governor and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He pushed the Obama camp to send its candidate back into the state, at one point dispatching a tart memorandum to the campaign. Rendell knows that some Republicans in the Philly suburbs could return to the fold and that guys like Jason Colangelo could decamp from their party in anger at Obama and the charms of La Palin. Most of all, he is sufficiently unscientific enough in his politics to believe that campaigning actually gets a candidate votes, and McCain has been campaigning here like crazy.

The Republican strategy in Pennsylvania has focused largely on wooing veterans and social conservatives, trying to raise questions about Obama's religion and Americanism, and attempting to reconnect white voters with their residual fears. They stumbled last week when Ashley Todd, a 20-year-old McCain volunteer from Texas, told police she had been mugged at a cash machine in a Pittsburgh neighborhood and that her black assailant—let's call him Joe the Robber—flew into a rage when he saw the McCain sticker on her car. Todd said the robber held her down and scratched a "B" into her right cheek. Police noticed the "B" was carved backward, suggesting it might have been done by dyslexic assassins hired by the Democrats or, perhaps, by Miss Todd using a mirror. She ultimately confessed to a hoax.

Things did not improve the following week. State party officials fired Bryan Rudnick, a consultant, who dispatched an e-mail to 75,000 Jewish voters here invoking the risk of another Holocaust if Obama were elected. "Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday," it read. "Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let's not make a similar one this year!"

Following Obama's Pennsylvania operation is like watching John F. Kennedy run for president using Walter Mondale's staff. When Palin gave a speech in Pittsburgh bizarrely suggesting that Obama wanted to tax trust funds set up by families to see to the needs of their special-needs children once their parents are gone, it took all day to get an "official" response from the Obama camp. When it came, it consisted of a boilerplate denial that wandered back into the canned rhetoric about how Obama only wants to raise taxes on families taking in $250,000 a year. It was an answer so lacking in succinctness as to be useless.

The closest I got to something printable was the initial remark from Obama's statewide spokesman, who said: "This is crazy. She's just making stuff up." Indeed, she was. And when I quoted him, he sent off a frantic e-mail demanding that I take down his comments because they were not the authorized, vanilla-pudding response.

Such smugness doesn't sit well with Rendell, who operated as a human hammer on behalf of Hillary Clinton in the primary and has since dedicated himself to being the same for Obama. Looking at both the polling numbers in the west and the nonstop string of McCain-Palin visits, he sent a message to the Obama staff. "I said, 'Forget the polls. We need you back here. We need Senator Obama here and we need President Clinton and we need Hillary here,' " Rendell said.

On Tuesday, Obama was in Pittsburgh. Bill Clinton was scheduled for a visit to a neighboring county. Rendell is, if nothing else, a man who knows how to read and win his state. Or even his states.

Dennis B. Roddy is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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