Election 2008

Battle for PA: Bitter Voters, Republican Converts and Huge Turnouts for Both Campaigns

For a state that hasn't had a competitive presidential primary in decades, there is enormous voter interest in the Dem candidates.
As Pennsylvania's Primary ended its final weekend of campaigning, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) refined his message of change by saying he was the only candidate who would end Washington's way of doing business, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) emphasized that she was better prepared to implement a Democratic agenda as president.

The contrasting leadership styles played out against backdrop of intense public interest in an increasingly blue state that has not seen a competitive presidential primary in decades. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that there are 325,000 newly registered Democratic voters across the state -- a figure equal to Pittsburgh's population -- with 15 percent telling pollsters they are undecided.

Both candidates brought thousands of people to each of their many events.

On Friday, Obama held his biggest rally yet in any state, drawing 35,000 people in Philadelphia. Still, local political activists predicted Tuesday's vote would be close in Pennsylvania's biggest city, an Obama stronghold, as the both its current mayor and governor -- a past mayor -- are pushing longtime Democrats to support Clinton.

Meanwhile, Clinton has also drawn crowds outside Philadelphia as she and supporters, including former President Bill Clinton, have focused more in the western part of the state, notably in the Pittsburgh and Scranton areas, as the campaign is concluding. She is expected to carry that region and the Lehigh Valley, northwest of Philadelphia.

Notably, it was not difficult to find Republicans at Obama and Clinton events. However, although only a few said they changed their voter registration to Democrat, a prerequisite to vote in the state's Democratic Primary.

The final campaigning also came as both campaigns spent heavily on media. Both aired numerous television commercials, as well as making pre-recorded phone calls to voters. While staffers at both campaigns accused each other of throwing political mud, many voters said they were looking at who could be the best change agent in Washington.

The Obama train

On Saturday, Obama held a series of rallies at commuter railway stations heading west from Philadelphia, starting in the suburbs and then crossing countryside until arriving at the state capital, Harrisburg, for a finale on the Statehouse steps. These suburban and outlying communities were considered swing voters, newspapers said on Sunday.

At a few minutes before 2 PM, Obama and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) disembarked from a chartered AMTRAK train to speak at the Paoli Rail station, a half-hour from downtown Philadelphia. Obama stood to the left of the gritty, old station house with rusting beams showing. Behind him, the rail line was old enough that the copper electrical lines above the tracks had bronzed while the nearby steel towers were rusty. Across the street were mom-and-pop stores, not national chains. The crowd was mostly white.

Upfront, near the podium, was a broad-shouldered middle-aged man holding up a poster that said, "Middle-aged white guys for Obama," a message targeting pundits who have said that demographic was likely to pull the state toward Clinton. Jim Fields of Malvern was ready to talk to the media.

"The reason I am for Obama," he said, "is he inspires people and I am tired of settling for the lesser of two evils. I wouldn't have put Hillary in that class if Barack had not come along; but it's also because of Hillary's tactics."

I asked if he was referring to televised ads that were aggressive.

"I'd call them destructive," Fields said. "The only way that she will get the nomination at this point is tearing down Barack, and the last thing we need is four more years of Bush -- which is what we'll get from McCain."

He then described why he made his sign.

"One of the reasons I brought this particular sign is I was tired of the media claiming people like us (middle-aged white guys) are her core constituency," Fields said. "Who is she to say that about us? The arrogance she has shown to people like us is demeaning."

Standing next to Fields were two Republicans, Keith York and Edward Krajewski.

"All my life I have been a Republican," York said. "I have never voted Democrat in my life. It has gotten to the point where a lot of Republicans have no idea of what is going on. They are just voting Republican because they think Democrats are going to take away their guns or raise their taxes. In the last election I voted for Bush because of that."

York said he was "sick and tired" of the billions being spent in Iraq, and frustrated that he -- a businessman -- was trapped with his current health care because his wife was ill.

"Here we are getting nowhere," he said. When asked what he thought of Clinton, York replied, "Don't tell me you know how the little guy feels when you made $109 million." That figure is the Clinton's earnings in their recently released federal tax returns.

York said he did not change his party registration in time to vote in the Democratic primary, although he was videotaping Obama's speech. However, his friend, Edward Krajewski, said he did register as a Democrat.

"I am from Pennsylvania. I am a typical white male. I am bitter," Krajewski said, referring to remarks made by Obama at a recent California fundraiser to characterize some Pennsylvania voters that has drawn much criticism. When asked if he was being serious, he said, "Yeah, I am. I am bitter about the economy, and the war in Iraq has a lot to do with our economy, with taking half a trillion dollars, when Bush said it would be 80 billion and we'd get out."

"I am a vet," he continued, noting he was in the Special Forces in Vietnam. "Why are we paying Halliburton $100 an hour to peel potatoes in K.P.?"

Krejewski said he, his wife and most of his family registered as Democrats before the primary. "We are ready for a change and we believe in Obama," he said.

Obama's remarks

When Obama arrived to speak, he emphasized the choice between him and Clinton was about leadership style -- and who would be more effective in bringing change.

"The American people also understand that it is not just enough to change the party in the White House, we will have to understand how politics is done. We have to change how Washington works," he said. "We have got to reduce the influence of lobbyists. We have to reduce the special interests who are dominating the agenda. And that is a very real difference that I have with Sen. Clinton."

"We will be unified in November," he continued, "but right now there is a choice to be made. Because Sen. Clinton's essential argument in this campaign is that you can't change how the game is played in Washington. Her basic argument is that the slash and burn, say-anything do-anything special interest politics is how it works. And so she has taken more money from PACs (political action committees) and lobbyists than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, combined.

"She also believes that the nature of politics is you say what the people want to hear. So maybe you say something about trade when you are campaigning with your husband -- eight, ten or twelve years ago -- but you say something different now that you are campaigning in Ohio or Pennsylvania. Maybe you say one thing about the war when it looks like the war is popular, maybe you say something different when the war gets to be unpopular. That's how business is done in Washington. That's become typical."

Obama then turned to the recent political attacks by the Clinton campaign.

"The idea of running negative campaigns," he continued. "Her staff called it the kitchen sink strategy. 'We gonna throw whatever we want at Barack.' Whether it's true, whether it's false, whether it's exaggerated, whether it's relevant, because, according to Sen. Clinton, that's what the Republicans will do to Barack anyway, so I may as well do it too.

"So, what's happened is Sen. Clinton has internalized a lot of the strategies, the tactics, that have made Washington such a miserable place. Where all we do is bicker, and all we do is fight. And meanwhile the oil companies, the gas companies, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the HMOs, they decide how this country is gonna run.

"And what I have said in this campaign is I don't want to play the game better in Washington, I want to put an end to the game plan. I don't want to become like those we have been fighting for the last 20 years. I want to convince independents and some disillusioned Republicans to join us in coalition for change."

Hillary rallies

On Sunday, the Clinton campaign began its day with a rally in Bethlehem, the former steel-making city in eastern Pennsylvania that lost thousands of jobs and one-fifth of its tax base when its steel mills were shuttered a decade ago. The rally was held at a high school gymnasium surrounded by homes originally built by Bethlehem Steel for its managers during its heyday as the nation's second-largest steel producer.

Two hours before the scheduled start, hundreds of people were already lined up on a cool, damp spring morning. Perhaps half were women who appeared to be in their middle years or older, although there was no shortage of men and younger people. The mood was upbeat but serious. As people waited to pass through security, it was clear almost everybody there already had made up their minds to support Clinton.

"The point is simple for me," said Bernie Toseland, a researcher for an air products firm and resident of nearby Allentown. "She has been into health care for many years and health care is important. And poor people are getting lost and she has been making an effort for them when it wasn't fashionable."

When asked if he considered Obama, he said yes but Clinton was a better choice.

"I guess I don't know if Obama can deliver," Toseland said. "He is an unknown .... The system stinks, but it is the system. It is a fairy tale to think that it will disappear. I'd rather have someone who says they can work within the system and not be corrupted by it -- and she hasn't been."

Toseland's pragmatism was typical among Clinton backers. When it came to making inevitable compromises, he said Clinton would not forget her constituents.

"In a country that is divided 50-50, the question is whom do you trust to make a compromise who will not sell out too much," Toseland said. "When you write to your senator, you say I want you to vote for one part of a bill; not another part you don't agree with. Politics is strange bedfellows. It is a question of who you want to be in bed with -- it's a personal decision."

Inside the Liberty High School gymnasium, several people said they wanted to return to the prosperity they experienced during Bill Clinton's administration.

"With Clinton, everybody made money," said Michael Zullo of Bethlehem, a retiree who worked for AT&T for 40 years. "Even if she goes in, her husband is over there with her. She has experience .... I believe she can do a better job than the other guy."

"I know nothing about the other guy," said Dominica Michti, who was with Zullo, referring to Obama. "I know Hillary will do a good job and her husband will be there."

Standing in the center of the crowd in a black Hillary tee-shirt adorned with numerous campaign buttons was Stephanie Schmoyer , a Bethlehem resident who was a contract employee for an insurance company. Schmoyer said she pays for her health insurance, adding that many people in the area, like her, have had to find work because many companies have moved overseas.

"I don't cling to my guns and my religion," Schmoyer said, referring to Obama's recent remarks that many voters embrace traditions when the political system leaves them behind. But unlike many at the Clinton rally, she said she had seen Obama speak. Schmoyer attended his big rally in Philadelphia, but she was not swayed.

"It's her experience," Schmoyer explained. "She is a woman. She understands what it is to have a family, what it is to have pressures in marriage. She understands that jobs need to be here, that we need affordable health care."

Clinton's remarks

Unlike Obama, who was visibly tired compared to 2008's earlier primaries, Clinton was relaxed and gave no sign a loss on Tuesday could create tremendous pressure to end her campaign. If anything, she exuded confidence she would be party's eventual nominee at the Democratic National Convention in August -- despite Obama's 138-delegate lead, according to demconwatch.blogspot.com. Her mother, Dorothy Rodman, sat behind Clinton on the podium.

"We are getting to the decision day," Clinton told the crowd, near the start of a 35-minute speech. "Tuesday will be the day when each and every one of you gets to decide who you want to be your next president."

Clinton then began the first of several comments about her primary opponent.

"This week we had a debate and it showed you the choice you have," she said. "And it's no wonder that my opponent has been so negative in these last few days of the campaign, because I think you saw a big difference between us. It's really a choice of leadership.

"I'm offering leadership you can count on. You know where I stand. You know what I've done. You know what I will do," she said. "I am offering my experience, my strength and my readiness for whatever comes our way. I am ready in day one to be the commander in chief and I am ready to fix this economy."

Clinton cited many of the issues and solutions that she has in rallies throughout the race. She spoke of unifying the country. She said she would work to erase the federal debt and restore "pay as you go" budgeting. She talked about easing pressures on middle-class families. She talked about paying for universal health care by making tax rates for the wealthy the same as for the middle class. She talked about ending the test-heavy 'No Child Left Behind' program for public schools -- prompting the loudest cheers -- and making low-interest government loans available for college students. She talked about creating and selling new government bonds to raise money to invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure. She said government-spurred green energy initiatives could create millions of jobs. She said oil and gas prices would come down as the country lowered its demand. And she criticized Obama for supporting an energy bill authored by Vice-President Dick Cheney.

"When Dick Cheney supported his energy bill, because that is what we thought it was -- his pro-oil company energy bill in 2005," she said, "with billions more in tax subsidies for the oil companies, at a moment when the oil price was going through the roof, I said, 'Wait a minute. I'm not voting for that.' I voted no. My opponent voted yes. That's a big difference between the two of us."

"I was raised by my family," she continued, "to say what I meant, mean what I say, buy also that actions speak louder than words. And I still believe that today."

And she contrasted her health care proposal with Obama, saying his criticism of her plan was what she would have expected from the Republicans.

"Congress has a good (health) plan for itself and we are going to open it up for all of you," she began. "Now this is one of the big difference in this campaign between my opponent and myself. And he has consistently -- and he is doing it again in Pennsylvania -- he has sent out mailers, he has run ads, misrepresenting what I have proposed. We have called him on it. Editorials have said it is misleading, but he has persisted at it.

"And I really regret that, because the last thing we need is to have somebody spending as much money as he has downgrading universal health care. We need to try to achieve universal health care. Not create political opposition to universal health care -- that's what the Republicans do. That's not what Democrats do."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of "What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).
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