Once again, Pennsylvania finds itself in the crosshairs of presidential politics, marked as a target on Republican and Democratic maps.
Both parties' presumptive nominees are visiting the state this week, in what amount to the opening days of the general-election campaign.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP candidate, plans a town-hall meeting this morning at the National Constitution Center.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, fresh from clinching the Democratic nomination, is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser Friday evening at Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel.
Democrats would seem to have the edge in the state based on "broad indicators" such as increased voter registration, economic worries and Iraq, said Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
"But given some of the liabilities that appear to be out there for Obama in terms of matching up with Pennsylvania's electorate, you have to consider the state in play," he said.
McCain in particular is taking an early run at Pennsylvania. His strategists believe he can win the state by attracting the white working-class and rural voters who overwhelmingly supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's primary.
The Democratic campaign turned bitter at times, with up to a quarter of Clinton supporters saying in exit polls they would not vote for Obama.
"If McCain attracts Democrat primary voters at the rate exit polls indicate, the impact on the general election could be huge," said McCain's national campaign manager, Rick Davis. He also said the campaign sees a "regional phenomenon" in voters' rejection of Obama in both southeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania - which could be key to winning both states.
The McCain campaign will be making concerted efforts to reach out to disappointed Clinton supporters.
One of those, Brooke Davis, 28, of Bensalem, said, "Sen. Obama is a lot farther to the left than I am, and I don't think he's in touch with average people.
"I've always admired McCain's service to the country - he's a war hero - and I think he is more to the center of things, able to work across party lines," Davis said.
Pennsylvania has long been a battleground in national elections and went for the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential contests. Obama leads McCain 46.3 percent to 40.5 percent here, according to an average of five statewide polls in May.
"This state is going to be tough - I call it 'barely blue,' " said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who was one of Obama's most prominent backers in the primary. "We have to work hard in the Philadelphia suburbs because John McCain's perceived as more independent and moderate than most Republicans and he has the potential to cut into our vote there."
Exit polls in Pennsylvania and several following primary states showed that Obama had the image of an elitist to many, and performed poorly with white working-class voters and women over 50.
McCain "can win the state if he can convince enough people who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary to vote for him and energize the Republican base," said Charles G. Kopp, the Mid-Atlantic regional finance chairman for the McCain campaign.
Casey said that Obama should be able to win over most Clinton supporters when they learn more about his economic plan, including tax cuts for the middle class, and McCain's support for Bush tax cuts that tilted toward the wealthy.
"It's really a choice of more of the same vs. change," Casey said.
In North Carolina on Monday, Obama launched a two-week tour through swing states to discuss the economy. His campaign has said Pennsylvania will be included on the trip.
Charlie Gerow, a GOP consultant in Harrisburg, said that Democrats' attempts to portray a possible McCain presidency as a third term for Bush will fail.
"John McCain has a strong appeal to independents, moderates, and the old Reagan Democrats," Gerow said. "People have a 25-year history with him; they know he is a maverick and fiercely independent."
Based on intense public interest in the campaign, most analysts predict a large voter turnout in November. That puts a premium on wooing less partisan voters, Gerow said.
"In the last couple [presidential] cycles, the thinking was you energize your base and turn it out," he said. "This is going to be won by the team that can genuinely go to independent, undecided voters and convert them."
Obama probably will get big margins from the Philadelphia region and Allegheny County, balanced by Republican strength for McCain in the northern and central parts of the state.
"Western Pennsylvania could be the swing area," said Joseph DiSarro, political scientist at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. "Right now, it looks like McCain has a very solid opportunity here because Obama does not fit the cultural values - he is very liberal on issues such as gun control and abortion."
DiSarro said that Casey, the scion of a political family whose success was built on appealing to working-class Democrats, could be helpful for Obama in the region. Casey "proved his political skills in the primary," DiSarro said.
Though McCain has an opening in the state, he still is running uphill, said pollster G. Terry Madonna, citing surveys showing huge majorities of voters pessimistic about the nation's direction and the historic difficulty both parties have had in holding the White House after two terms.
"Republicans are going to have a ferocious time trying get their voters out," said Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "It's just a horrendous environment for them."
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