HARRISBURG, Pa. - The time-honored cliche of politics in Pennsylvania is that only three issues matter to the voters - jobs, jobs and jobs.
This year may be different. Predictably, the opinion polls show economic issues as the most pressing concern here. But political operatives and activists are wondering whether national security questions - the war in Iraq and the specter of terrorism - may not upset the conventional wisdom.
Even among the most knowledgeable insiders, however, there is no clear consensus on how those issues may play out Election Day, Nov. 2. Will President Bush be able to win a second term by projecting the image of a strong national leader in parlous times? Or will his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, be able to make a convincing case that Bush lacks the competence and credibility required for the White House?
Those same questions could also be determinative elsewhere. So the outcome in Pennsylvania may point to the national result if only because this state, with 23 electoral votes, is the largest of the five big swing states of the Rust Belt that usually hold the key to close presidential elections, the others being Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey.
There are no laboratory situations in American politics, however, and there are several factors in the equation here that seem to favor the Democrats. They hold a 48 percent to 42 percent edge in party registrations among the almost 8 million voters.
The mayor of Philadelphia, John F. Street, and the governor, Edward G. Rendell, are politically aggressive Democrats who are locked in a bitter internecine political war but are nonetheless committed to turning out the vote for Kerry, as they did - when Rendell was the mayor of Philadelphia as well as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee - to give Al Gore a 51-46 percent triumph here in 2000.
Some Republicans consider the state a hard-to-impossible sell. Rick Robb, a longtime activist and sometime campaign operative, scoffs at the notion that Pennsylvania is a swing state, pointing to the losses the party has suffered in the suburban counties around Philadelphia in the last three presidential elections and Rendell's runaway victory in the 2002 gubernatorial election. "Not anymore," he says, "not anymore."
Whatever the prospect, the White House clearly has not been deterred. Bush's visit Monday was either the 28th or 29th (depending on what you count) to the state since he took office. The campaign has had staff working the state since last fall, and the Bush-Cheney operation spent $2.1 million on television ads in Pennsylvania last month before announcing a temporary cutback the other day.
The most recent Keystone Poll, conducted in the last week of March, showed the president at 46 percent and Kerry at 40, compared with Bush 46 and Kerry 47 in February. The figures suggest that Bush attack ads on television have done some damage, at least temporarily, to Kerry here, as well as, national polls show, across the broader electorate. A survey released this week by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed a similar situation here.
The numbers have obviously buoyed the Republicans. Leslie Gromis Baker, a leading consultant working for the Bush-Cheney campaign here and in adjoining states, cites the run of negative stories about Bush over the past few weeks - the chaos in Iraq, the critical books and the damaging testimony before the 9/11 commission - and says, "If he can be even after all that's happened, I can live with it."
Some findings in the Keystone data should give the White House pause, however. Asked the long-established cutting-edge question about whether "things in Pennsylvania are generally headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track," the voters said 33 percent "right direction" and 50 percent "wrong track." Political strategists have learned over the years that a "wrong-track number" that high is an indicator of trouble ahead for incumbents.
The poll last month also found only 45 percent of Pennsylvania voters agreeing that Bush "deserves" to be elected to a second term, not a reassuring figure for any incumbent.
Nor is Kerry without weapons of his own. He has been supported here by a television campaign with firepower similar to that for Bush-Cheney - $1.8 million in March - financed by his campaign and by allied "independent" groups organized under Section 527 of the tax code such as MoveOn.com and the Media Fund. But to conform to the restrictions on the ways they can spend their unregulated money, those 527 groups have been running mostly negative television ads about Bush, apparently to limited effect so far, at a time when voters are telling poll-takers in increasing numbers that they resent all the negativism in American politics today.