Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SALTLICK, Pa. | Despite a double-digit deficit in polls, Sen. John McCain is throwing almost everything he can into Pennsylvania, seeking to flip soft supporters of his Democratic rival — many of whom favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary, with some boldly acknowledging that race was a factor.

The Republican presidential nominee is expected to make few inroads in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which have large black populations, but is working the blue-collar, white suburbs and rural areas across the broad midsection of the Democrat-leaning state.

Mrs. Clinton won 60 of 67 counties by nearly 10 percentage points in the Pennsylvania primary race against Sen. Barack Obama.

In this hardscrabble town, tucked in the southwestern corner of the state within Fayette County, which voted for Mrs. Clinton 79 percent to 21 percent, race is an issue but not one people discuss openly.

• Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map

“I didn’t much like Clinton, but I don’t like Obama at all,” said one man outside the fire hall, who said he voted for Mr. Obama’s primary rival.

“I don’t think America is ready for a black president, and I’m planning on voting for Senator McCain this time,” said the man, who refused to give his name but added as he walked away, “I’m not racist.”

While almost three-quarters of Americans say they would be willing to vote for a black president, 14 percent said they would not vote for a black candidate, according to a Fox 5/Washington Times/Rasmussen poll conducted Oct. 15-16. Pollsters and election strategists, though, say that number could be even higher, but that voters do not want to acknowledge racial bias.

Some analysts say Ohio and Pennsylvania may see larger than average versions of what is dubbed the “Bradley effect.” Tom Bradley, the first black man to be elected mayor of Los Angeles, lost the 1982 governor’s race even though he led in voter polls by large margins before the election.

With just 14 days left in the campaign Mr. McCain is mostly on defense, trying to hold the so-called red states that President Bush won in 2004. He trails Mr. Obama in at least a half-dozen of those states, though, and is looking to make up those potential losses by winning a state that voted Democratic in 2004.

But is Pennsylvania that state, especially with both Philadelphia, whose population is nearly half black, and Pittsburgh, a quarter black, expected to go strongly for the nation’s first black presidential nominee?

“He’s 13 points behind in the state polls, Obama’s outspending him 4-to-1, Obama has a huge field organization that he can’t begin to touch, and the race hasn’t tightened in a week. Did I miss anything?” said Terry Madonna, director of Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

“If he gives up Pennsylvania, that means he has given up, what, every blue state - every blue state,” he said. “But pulling out of Pennsylvania would be devastating to the national campaign. He just can’t do it.”

Mr. McCain, who ends his stump speeches now with calls to “fight, fight, fight,” appears to have no intention of quitting in Pennsylvania. He makes three campaign stops today from one end of the state to the other - first Philadelphia, then Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

One of his senior advisers said recently that not all is lost in Pennsylvania.

“We’re seeing very different poll numbers,” the adviser said. “We’re not seeing double digits; we think it’s much closer.”

An aide on the ground in the state, meanwhile, said internal polls show Mr. Obama’s lead in the “mid- to low single digits.”

The Obama camp is cautiously optimistic.

“We always expected Pennsylvania to be close and, despite what the public polls are showing, we are continuing to act as if this is a close race,” said Sean Smith, spokesman for the Obama campaign’s Pennsylvania operation. “We have built the biggest volunteer organization in Pennsylvania history and … we believe that our ground operation will carry us through if this race does tighten up.”

Pennsylvania is considered to be a blue state. Its voters have leaned Democratic since 1992, according to Real Clear Politics.

On paper, the demographics across the state seem a perfect fit for Mr. McCain, the self-described maverick. Voters ringing the cities and spread across the Appalachian hills are mostly blue-collar and often less-educated, and hew closely to a moderate to conservative bent on social issues. In the April primary, one in five voters said race was a “major factor,” according to exit polls.

Racial issues were injected into the Pennsylvania campaign last week when Rep. John P. Murtha, who is white and a longtime critic of Mr. Bush, made an uncommonly frank statement about his own district.

“There’s no question western Pennsylvania’s a racist area,” Mr. Murtha said, predicting that Mr. Obama would face difficulty attracting some voters in this state.

He quickly stepped back from his words.

“While we cannot deny that race is a factor in this election, I believe we’ve been able to look beyond race these past few months and that voters today are concerned with the policy differences of our two candidates and their vision for the future of our great country,” he said in a meeting with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editors.

On Monday, though, Mr. Murtha repeated the charge. “There’s still folks that have a problem voting for someone because they are black,” he said.

But the McCain campaign knows that the Democratic nominee got trounced in the primaries by Mrs. Clinton, who drew huge majorities from most of the demographic groups that could move toward Mr. McCain.

“He lost here resoundingly in the primary,” said Jon Seaton, regional campaign manager for Ohio and Pennsylvania. “The southwestern counties are very winnable for us. Voters there overwhelmingly rejected Barack Obama.”

Mr. Seaton noted that Mr. Obama will be hard-pressed to increase his numbers in the cities compared with 2004, while Mr. McCain can draw from across the state. “It’s a turnout game and I feel confident in our turnout,” he said.

Mr. McCain’s top advisers are also looking to grab hold of a key - albeit amorphous - group that pushed Mrs. Clinton over the top: “late-deciders.” More than one in 10 primary voters made up their minds the day they cast their ballots, according to a survey of 40 voting precincts for the Associated Press. They swung toward Mr. Obama’s rival for many reasons, chief among them race and experience, election analysts said.

Mr. Seaton said the McCain campaign has a strong ground operation and predicted that the nominee will play “better with the independent, suburban voters than the president did so we can cut into the advantage the Democrats have in the southeast,” home to Philadelphia.

But Mr. Madonna said time is running out for the Republican. “I thought all along that if he could get it into single digits this week, he had a chance. He hasn’t. They say his internal polls show him better than our state polls, but wait a minute. What that means is that every single poll - every single poll - done in the last couple weeks is wrong. That can’t be,” he said with a laugh.

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