- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

PITTSBURGH — The tightening race in this must-win state spurred a blitz by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama‘s campaign to woo back female and independent voters as the candidate’s surrogates went on the attack against Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin.

“She’s a lightweight,” said Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields, a prominent campaigner for Mr. Obama. “Let’s get people off the idea of Palin, Palin, Palin.”

He is working door to door in an effort to turn off voters for the Alaska governor in surrounding Allegheny County, a rural and mostly conservative area where the hockey mom likely picked up support for Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain. Mirroring national trends, Mrs. Palin’s appeal proved a new wrinkle for the Obama campaign in the county, which went heavily for his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, in the primary and has yet to coalesce behind the Democratic nominee.

“They might identify with Palin, but who is running for president?” Mr. Shields said. “The question is, ‘Is she ready to be president? No. Then why should you support her for vice president?’ That’s an argument I’m winning every day on the doorstep.”

It is part of the campaign’s shift into overdrive to beat back the surge in the polls from Mr. McCain, of Arizona.

Since the addition of Mrs. Palin electrified the Republican ticket, the party has cut Mr. Obama’s lead in Pennsylvania down to a statistical dead heat. His advantage dropped to within the margin of error - three points - in a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey last week, compared to the Illinois senator’s seven-point lead in the poll a month ago.

The poll showed Mr. McCain attracting white women and independents away from Mr. Obama, who also failed to win over about 28 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters from the primary race.

The McCain campaign, laboring to turn Pennsylvania red for the first time since 1988, dismissed the attacks on Mrs. Palin.

“Governor Palin is a proven reformer with executive experience that will make change. She’s actually done what Obama claims he’ll try and do,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Mr. Obama’s push back in Pennsylvania this past weekend included two events targeting female voters in Pittsburgh, one with Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and the other with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Pittsburgh native . He went after blue-collar voters in Erie at a rally led by AFL-CIO chiefs and famed former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris.

In Philadelphia, the Obama campaign goosed the youth vote at events at several college campuses with TV star Kate Walsh, who plays Dr. Addison Montgomery on the ABC medical dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” She also attended an event to rally female voters in Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb that is key to Mr. Obama’s strategy for the state.

The flurry of activity underscores the pivotal role of Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes.

Pennsylvania joins Ohio and Florida as the big three prizes. Since 1960, nobody has won the White House without taking two of them. Coupled with Michigan, any of those states could swing the election.

The Obama campaign plans later to deploy Mrs. Clinton in an effort to nudge Pennsylvania women and reluctant blue-collar voters into the Obama camp, as she tried to do Sunday in Ohio.

“I think we are going to see a lot of Senator Clinton in Pennsylvania, and I think that is going to be a very big help in diffusing some of [Mrs. Palin’s] popularity, but popularity that ought to be short-lived,” Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell told reporters in a recent conference call.

“She’s not going to take Governor Palin on in a personal sense, but she is going to take the issues on - the issues that are important to women, that are important to working-class voters.”

Mr. Rendell, who backed Mrs. Clinton in the bitter primary battle, has thrown his support and his formidable campaign machine behind Mr. Obama.

The McCain campaign is doubling its staff and increasing the number of offices in the state to about 40, including new offices that opened Saturday in the rural south-central Pennsylvania town of Carlisle and in Montgomery County. It also initiated a phone-bank operation and door-to-door campaign this past weekend, contacting tens of thousands of voters on Saturday alone, according to campaign officials.

On the other side, Mr. Obama opened another 35 field offices last week, increasing the campaign’s statewide presence to 65 offices, the campaign said.

Despite the shift in focus to counter the Palin effect, the Obama campaign is following a campaign strategy perfected by Mr. Rendell, who captured the office for Democrats in 2003 by running up large enough margins of victory in urban centers - the Philadelphia metro area, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Erie - to offset the mostly conservative vote throughout the state’s rural expanses.

The strategy eked out a Pennsylvania win in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Craig Schirmer, director of the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania, insisted the campaign has not shifted gears since the race drew to a tie.

“We are still talking about changing Washington,” Mr. Schirmer said. “We are still talking to voters about the issues that matter, the economy, housing prices, energy prices and making sure that they understand that Barack Obama is the true agent of change here in this campaign.”

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