`It's down to us' in Pa. primary

State has unusual weight in Democratic campaigns

Election 2008

April 22, 2008|By John Fritze and Paul West | John Fritze and Paul West,Sun reporters

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made their final appearances before today's Democratic vote - ending a six-week barrage in a state that is ultimately expected to favor Clinton - residents of this industrial city on the Susquehanna River said they are glad to play a role in a presidential primary election for the first time in decades, even if they have been occasionally surprised by the hoopla.

"We've been bombarded with local appearances. The local colleges and most diners - they keep coming back," said Rose Kolonauski, 48, a student at Penn State Harrisburg. "I have never experienced this much attention in a primary that I can remember."

Pennsylvania could prove to be the decisive test of the long Democratic presidential campaign - if Obama wins. More likely, the race will continue into North Carolina and Indiana, which hold primaries in two weeks.

In advance of today's vote, neutral Democrats and some leading Clinton supporters have said that she would be forced to abandon her candidacy if she lost Pennsylvania, a state where she is heavily favored to prevail. The demographics of the state are similar to Ohio, which she won by 10 percentage points, and she has the support of Gov. Edward G. Rendell and other key elected officials.

Obama has the backing of the state's Democratic senator, Bob Casey, and has outspent Clinton on TV ads. However, his momentum in the state appeared to stall after his highly publicized gaffe about frustrated, small-town Pennsylvanians, who, Obama said, "cling" to guns and religion in the face of economic decline.

In Harrisburg, many people brushed those comments aside. Malissa Sheibley - who is undecided but said she may vote for Obama because of his position on health care - laughed when asked whether the comments had rubbed her the wrong way.

"I don't think anybody really took it seriously," said Sheibley, 23, a waitress at a bar next door to Obama's local headquarters here.

Michele Printup, waiting for a bus near the Pennsylvania State House, acknowledged that she has been inundated with political ads, rallies and mailings.

But the onslaught, while daunting, did not stop her from putting out a message of her own.

Printup, 44, plastered the back of her wheelchair with Hillary Clinton signs. One reads: "Vote for another Clinton to cleanup after another Bush."

"It's been madness," Printup said. "The candidates are overwhelming everything."

Both candidates have visited the Harrisburg area, which has traditionally leaned Republican in general elections, and their campaign offices are on the same downtown street about a block apart. While Obama has outspent Clinton in television advertising statewide, residents said the two have flooded the airwaves with equal vigor in the Harrisburg market.

Several residents said they have also noticed the increasingly bitter tenor of the race and questioned whether that tone may hurt whoever emerges to challenge Republican John McCain in November. And sometimes the candidates' messages aren't resonating with their supporters.

"My candidate's advertisements have made me a little less sure - maybe too much exposure, I don't know," said Seth Martin, 25, who said he had his mind made up on Obama weeks ago. "I'll still vote for him, but not quite as passionately."

Harrisburg resident Kathy Huss said she has received a couple of automated phone calls a night - too many, in her opinion - from both candidates.

"It's just kind of annoying when you have to jump up and answer the phone and that's who it is," said Huss, adding that she is leaning toward Clinton. "It's a pain in the - not the `neck.'"

Though Clinton is favored in Pennsylvania - the largest of the 10 contests remaining - much will turn on her margin of victory. If Clinton wins by less than large proportions, the campaign may have to work harder to swing superdelegates to its side. Those superdelegates could be critical for Clinton because Obama has won more regular delegates.

There are 158 delegates up for grabs in Pennsylvania.

A Clinton victory would likely net her no more than about 15 to 17 more delegates than Obama will gain in the state, because of party rules that allocate delegates on a proportional basis, according to G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

If Clinton finishes the primary season with more popular votes than Obama - a tall order, given his current 700,000-vote lead - it would bolster her case to the superdelegates that she would be the stronger candidate against John McCain.

According to the latest statewide public polling, Clinton leads in Pennsylvania by about 6 percentage points. Winning the primary by that magnitude is unlikely to quiet the calls for her to end her candidacy in the interest of party unity.

Both candidates sought to play down expectations yesterday - with Obama predicting that he would lose and Clinton aides suggesting they would be grateful for a single-digit win. Both started their day in Scranton and both were expected to appear in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"Usually, by the time it gets down to us it doesn't really matter anymore," said Gina Grolemund, a 21-year-old junior at Penn State, who said she is supporting Clinton.

"Now, it's down to us."

john.fritze@baltsun.com paul.west@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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