Pennsylvania, which hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988, suddenly has become a tempting prize for Mitt Romney.
Barack Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 points over Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and he seemed in a strong position to carry the state’s 20 electoral votes again this year. Mr. Obama has led Mr. Romney in polls by double digits for most of the year, and neither candidate has spent money or much time in the Keystone State.
But since Mr. Romney trounced the president in their first debate on Oct. 3, the race in Pennsylvania has been tightening to the point where the state is now rated a tossup.
A Quinnipiac University poll Tuesday showed the Republican nominee trailing Mr. Obama by 4 points, 50 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters. The same poll in late September showed the president with a 12-point lead.
A Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll taken Oct. 10-14 also found Mr. Romney trailing by 4 points, down from a 7-point deficit in late September.
“Could Mitt Romney win here? Yes, I think he can,” said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa. “He’s in that range, if things broke for him. But it’s still an uphill climb for Republicans.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, said he doubts that the Romney campaign’s internal polling looks as promising as the public surveys.
“If their number was 4 [percent], Romney would be on the air today,” Mr. Rendell said in an interview. “The fact that they’re not tells me that their number is not four. Each day they wait makes it less and less likely they really have a chance to really be competitive.”
Mr. Romney’s improved position in Pennsylvania, where Vice President Joseph R. Biden was raised, is even more startling because his campaign hasn’t spent any money on ads in the state. The Republican has set foot in Pennsylvania only once since July. His momentum is primarily a result of his performance in the first presidential debate.
“Even though their campaign is not very alive in the commonwealth, Pennsylvanians, like everybody else, watched that [first] debate,” Mr. Borick said. “Among undecideds, in particular, we’ve seen movement.”
Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, said Mr. Romney has improved his standing in Pennsylvania, especially among white Catholic voters.
“Pennsylvania voters say Vice President Joseph Biden, a native son and a Catholic, won the debate and is more qualified than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to be president,” Mr. Malloy said. “But that doesn’t seem to be lifting the top of the ticket.”
The closing of the gap in Pennsylvania presents the Romney campaign with something of an unexpected dilemma. Not having counted on winning the state, Romney advisers now must consider whether it’s worth diverting precious campaign resources from other battleground states such as Ohio and Virginia in the hopes of carrying Pennsylvania.
In fact, the Romney campaign recently moved one of its top officials in Pennsylvania, Kate Meriwether, out of its office in Harrisburg to help the campaign in Virginia.
A Romney campaign official said on background that Pennsylvania “is showing the same trends we’re seeing all across the country.”
“We’ll be monitoring developments in the state very closely,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have over 60 staff in the state and are breaking get-out-the-vote records. We plan to continue that through Election Day.”
The official added that Ms. Meriwether is working in Virginia “temporarily, because we have so many events there.”
The decision of whether or not the Romney camp should devote money in Pennsylvania is complicated by the state’s expensive media markets, including Philadelphia, where some of a campaign’s ad buy is “wasted” on TV viewers in solidly Democratic Delaware and New Jersey.
“It’s not a cheap place to play,” Mr. Borick said. “It’s going to be a serious allocation of resources. At the end of the day, I think that’s the only thing holding them back. I think it’s probably a little too risky for them right now. Pennsylvania might just be a bit of a luxury, instead of a necessity that those other states are.”
Mr. Romney’s lone visit to Pennsylvania this fall was for a fundraiser in Philadelphia and a speech at the Valley Forge Military Academy on Sept. 28, but he did predict that he would win the state.
“I’ve got a little secret here, and that is the Obama campaign thinks that Pennsylvania is in their pocket, they don’t need to worry about it,” Mr. Romney said. “We’re going to win Pennsylvania, and we’re going to take back the White House.”
Republicans might be even more optimistic about their chances in Pennsylvania if a judge had upheld the state’s voter-ID legislation approved by the legislature last spring. The measure required voters to show photo identification at polling places, but a judge this month blocked the provision from taking effect this fall, saying the state hadn’t done enough to provide voters who lack ID with the proper documentation.
Mr. Rendell said that if the law were in effect on Nov. 6, it would cost Democratic candidates 1 percent to 2 percent of the vote statewide.
Another positive development for Republicans in the state is the showing in recent polls of unheralded Senate candidate Tom Smith, who is challenging Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat. The Quinnipiac poll showed Mr. Smith trailing the incumbent by 3 percentage points, 48 percent to 45 percent. Democrats and even some top Republicans long ago considered Mr. Casey as a certain winner for re-election.
Mr. Smith, who made a fortune in the coal industry, has spent more than $16 million of his own money on the race.
“The Casey campaign so far has been lackluster,” Mr. Borick said. “Bob Casey’s not a good fundraiser, and he’s let Smith come right in and define the race.”