Bad Signs, W.

From my desk, I can look across the Delaware River and track the changing season by the colors in the northeastern Pennsylvania forest. The leaves are turning over there, ready to fall.

So are the president's poll numbers in the Keystone State.

I live in New York state – Kerry country to be sure – but from my vantage point on the state's western edge, I have a ringside seat on the battleground state – and the political advertising wars – of Pennsylvania. During the last few months, quiet afternoons have occasionally been disturbed by the rotors of pairs of helicopters, cruising westward, carrying what I surmise are the president's men, or campaigning Democrats, into this crucial turf.

This is the snowy fringe of the Bible belt. Guns and God are talismans against fear and abortion, if not against the coming long, grim winter. Public schools close on the first day of deer season. Billboards advertising "Abortion stops a beating heart" tower above the trees.

We don't agree on everything, but we share the same gas stations, Wal-Mart and diners, and I think I know a little about how my neighbors feel as November draws nigh. Northeastern Pennsylvania is supposed to be Bush country. If he can't find common ground with people here, W. is doomed.

On the ground, literally, things are looking good for the president across the river. Bush/Cheney lawn signs are as numerous as pumpkins and fake spider-webs on the farmhouse lawns. Inside cozy, winterized homes, TVs have been flickering for months with incessant Bush propaganda. Through the end of September, the Bush campaign pumped 16,000 television spots costing $15 million into Pennsylvania, nearly as much as the combined Bush television buys in Michigan and Missouri. The campaign only spent more in two other states, Florida and Ohio. Bush advertising proliferates on rural Pennsylvania's roads too. At any time of year, billboards abound. These eyesores routinely provoke conservationists to litigate, but otherwise remain as much a part of the landscape as the ubiquitous Burma shave ads half a century ago. Right now the Bush signs are so numerous – I counted more than a half-dozen in a five mile stretch outside Honesdale, on the state's eastern edge – that the touring driver might believe Pennsylvania belongs to Bush. Other travelers report they sprout in similar profusion from the rocky slopes and forests for at least another hundred miles south, deep into the Lehigh Valley.

Their catchy one-liners, simple and to the point, are calculated to touch the flinty, faithful soul.

"Flip-Flops or Boots?" asks one.
"Remember: It's Your Money."
"One Nation Under God."

On a cadet blue background, bright as the October sky, a single sentence shares space with the "Bush/Cheney" icon – names silhouetted in a red, white and blue shooting star – or laser-guided bomb, depending on your point of view.

Passing piles of them in the local Sunoco (gas still hovering around two bucks a gallon there and rising, thank you very much) the casual observer might get the impression that the president was winning, nay, had already won, at least in Pennsylvania.

Only the dedicated news consumer, turning to the jump page and scanning down to the fine-printed headlines below the fold, finds the AP story reporting Bush is seven points behind Kerry in Pennsylvania.

Bad sign, W.

Fact is that even here, in the northeastern part of the state, Kerry lawn signs are out, the Democratic Party offices in Honesdale are attracting crowds, and in the parking lot at Wal-Mart, you can see cars bearing bumper stickers that say "Regime Change Begins at Home."

Could it be that an appreciable, if small number of previously solid Bushites in northeastern Pennsylvania are losing their zeal?

The thought can't not have occurred to Bush's advisers. Local Republicans have known for months that the area is "in play," as culturally conservative Democrat Bob Casey, son of the late vociferously anti-abortion Pennsylvania governor, told reporters, even back when Bush's poll numbers in Pennsylvania were still rosy.

How could the polls depict the grim reality on the ground? Besides the small local farmers, scratching out a living from the rocky soil, this region once survived on manufacturing jobs. Those days are gone and Bush has done nothing to reverse the trend. Unemployment in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre region reached 7 percent in June, the first time at that high since 1997.

Bush's Hooverian job loss record not only hurts towns like Scranton – it slams the neighboring rural communities, where one in five residents is older than 65. In the last year alone, the Scranton area lost 2,000 manufacturing jobs. I leave it to economists to calculate the trickle-out effect of that kind of hit, in a cash-based economy where people have to scramble to pay for heating oil, fill their truck tanks with gas and need employed workers to create demand for the kinds of services that non-manufacturing workers provide.

Shallow Ground

Although planted firmly in the soil, the signs most definitely don't have grassroots. The small print at the bottom of each of the billboards says they are a "personal message" from one man: Stephen Adams. Adams is the founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Adams Outdoor Advertising, one of the nation's top 10 billboard companies.

Randy Romig, a spokesman for Adams, said Adams personally rents them from his company, and hired his own company designers to design them, and considers them an independent expenditure. The company's lawyers, he said, had filed all the necessary paperwork and the company is not operating in concert with the campaign.

The company owns more than 14,000 billboards in six states, but Romig couldn't say exactly how many had been donated to Bush during this campaign season. "That varies from day to day," Romig said.

As for the exact cost of the expenditure, Romig couldn't be precise. "It varies hugely. Some billboards rent for $125 a month, some for several thousand, based on traffic figures provided by state governments."

The money is being channeled into the state in an effort to swing voters; the president himself has been channeled in a number of times, too. Bush, Laura Bush and Cheney have all made trips into the region this fall. Bush has been in the Scranton area twice since the convention. He chose Wilkes-Barre to present this week's "ferocious, renewed attack" (as the local papers dubbed it) on Kerry. The speech was billed by the Bush campaign as a "major policy address." Maybe that's how they saw it, but there wasn't a shred of policy in the speech, a fact that even the local papers could not ignore.

The biggest regional newspapers, The Scranton Times and The Tribune – both billing themselves as "Northeastern Pennsylvania's Largest News Team" are both published by the Lynett family. They share reporters and stories, but run different, albeit equally Bush-friendly headlines. The day after the speech, both papers were emblazoned with triple column, color photos of the president gleaming after his speech before an invited-only audience of loyalty-tested Republicans.

The headlines read like dueling campaign slogans: "Retooled Speech Blisters Kerry on Iraq War" reads the Scranton paper, while the Tribune offers "President Attacks Kerry's Tax Policy."

More Empty Messages

Looked at from here, it was gall on Bush's part to choose Wilkes-Barre for this week's new "ferocious" speech. He might have looked like a loser in the debate, but here, at least, he assumes the voters can forgive what's being played as a style deficit.

In Wilkes-Barre, Bush warmed up the crowd with flattery. "It's good to be in a part of the world where people work hard, where they love their families ... and where people like to hunt and fish."

But the subsequent speech was no more filled with new ideas than the starry signage and billboards. The president and his men seem to think they can plaster up his wounds with more sloganeering, and they chose Pennsylvania, receptacle already of tons of the same empty messages, in which to do it.

His handlers are too preoccupied with endgame now to notice that casually dissing people's intelligence didn't work this time. They didn't even bother to schedule any handshaking time, content to use the region as a CNN backdrop. Bush spent no time at all with residents and local news media. His plane touched down at the airport in Pittston Township at about 9:45 a.m. and was wheels-up by 11:30 a.m.

The event certainly didn't involve any undecided voters, either. Bush entered the Kirby Center through a rear door, avoiding demonstrators and supporters alike, and strode on stage before a hand-picked audience, loyalty-tested to cheer at the right lines.

We'll all know very soon whether billboards, TV ads, lawn signs and fake audiences can make up for W.'s deficiencies. But watching the leaves turn, and the chilling realities creeping into the northeastern Pennsylvania nights, I'm betting they won't.

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