Gannett News Service
HAVERFORD, Pa. – Samuel Leath had a burning question for Hillary Clinton.
What, the 19-year-old Haverford College student asked, should he tell people when he campaigns for her in this upscale Philadelphia suburb?
“Just knock on the door and say, ‘You know, she’s really nice,’ ” Clinton responded to laughter and applause at a rally here. “Or you can say, ‘She’s not as bad as you think.’ ”
On a beautiful spring day, it was a cheerier scene than the bitter televised debate between Clinton and her rival, Barack Obama, the night before.
Then, Clinton had maintained that one of her qualifications for the nation’s highest office was that she was by far the most vetted and battle-tested candidate because her enemies had rifled through her “baggage” for years.
Obama was on the defensive over relationships with controversial figures and for statements he’d made about “bitter” small-town Pennsylvanians who “cling” to guns, religion and anti-immigration fervor in tough economic times.
While Clinton and Obama slug it out heading into Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, they may be posing a much larger question than who will win.
And that is: Have the Democrats hurt themselves beyond repair in a state that could be pivotal in the November election against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain?
Some think that’s already happened in the six-week preamble to Pennsylvania. During the longest pause in elections and caucuses in the Democrats’ nomination fight so far, the campaign has gone decisively negative.
New York Sen. Clinton has questioned Obama’s fitness to be commander in chief, run ads attacking him for his “bitter” comments and reeled from her admissions she’d overstated the dangers she faced on a 1996 visit to Bosnia. More than half of respondents in a new Gallup Poll don’t think she’s honest or trustworthy.
Obama’s “bitter” gaffe blunted his momentum – he had pulled significantly closer in polls here until last week – and prompted McCain to imply the Illinois senator was an elitist who looked down upon hardworking, small-town Pennsylvanians.
“This is a problem the Democrats have faced ever since it became clear they would fight a long time for this nomination,” said Andrew Polsky, a presidential scholar at Hunter College in New York.
The question over the impact of Pennsylvania’s primary is exacerbated by the reality that even if Clinton wins here – she is slightly ahead in most polls – she is likely to gain only a handful of delegates on Obama among the 158 at stake.
Overall, he leads her by roughly 140 delegates, and is less than 400 short of the number necessary to win the party’s nomination.
Bottom line: Pennsylvania will do little to end the fighting.
James Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, said that no matter who wins the Democratic nomination, Sen. McCain of Arizona has benefited in Pennsylvania by staying out of the Democrats’ way. But overall, Lee believes Obama will leave Pennsylvania worse off in a potential match against McCain.
Just as the “bitter” controversy was unfolding, Lee was polling state legislative races in what he called “the heart of Reagan Democrat country – Altoona, east of Pittsburgh, right in the heart of” Pennsylvania’s blue-collar Democrat base.
It’s an area derisively referred to as “Pennsytucky” in the liberal enclaves of Philadelphia, but it is the heart of any presidential contest in the Keystone State.
Lee said Clinton led 55 percent to 21 percent in his survey in this area and that Obama’s support “has flat lined there. And that is where he was starting to show some gains.”
Unless Obama wins decisively enough here Tuesday to cause Clinton to back off, the nomination is almost certainly in the collective hands of about 250 superdelegates – elected officials and party leaders – who have yet to commit to either candidate.
If Clinton wins here Tuesday, it will be because she has cobbled together a similar coalition that helped her win last month in Ohio, a strategy that homes in on the economic concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats outside of Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
Obama has been trying to cut into Clinton’s margins in these areas by staging rallies in blue-collar cities such as Erie, where he campaigned Friday, and outspending her by about 2-to-1 on television. His messages focus on economics, family and faith. He’s counting on piling up big margins in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs.
But some think this coalition is a prescription for trouble versus McCain in the November general election in the Keystone State.
Lee said his polling in some of the state’s more blue-collar congressional districts shows McCain and Clinton in a virtual dead heat, but McCain retains double-digit leads over Obama in those same districts.
“They are OK with Hillary, but as soon as it is an Obama-McCain matchup, they are back to McCain,” Lee said. “It shows the viability McCain has with these older, hard-line Democrats. They are veterans who identify with John McCain’s background. Pennsylvania is much better positioned for McCain if Obama is the nominee than if Clinton is.”
Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For Raasch’s Furthermore blog, see this story at www.tucsoncitizen.com/ opinion.
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VOTERS’ TOP ISSUES
The Associated Press-Yahoo News survey of 1,844 U.S. adults April 2-14 has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
Percentage of respondents answering “extremely important” to the question, “How important to you is each of the following issues ?”
Gas prices 59%
Health care 57%
Social Security 50%
Political corruption 48%
Housing prices 44%