In the next few days, Philadelphia will once again take its place as the center of the political universe - with America's best-known hockey mom playing a prominent and unconventional role.

On Saturday, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is scheduled to campaign in the city, a week after Bruce Springsteen sang on his behalf on the Parkway.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is set to campaign in Scranton on Sunday with former President Bill Clinton and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr., will be making two stops in the area Monday.

Without question, though, the most unusual appearance will be that of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

After appearing at a Republican fund-raiser at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue on Saturday afternoon, the Alaska governor is to drop the ceremonial first puck at the Flyers' regular-season opener at the Wachovia Center.

"We are very excited she has accepted our offer and we are very proud of the publicity she is generating for hockey moms and the sport of hockey," said Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, who runs the Flyers.

Last month, after Palin spoke in her acceptance speech about being a hockey mom, the Flyers launched a search for the area's "ultimate hockey mom." The winner will be on the ice with Palin for the faceoff.

Snider attended a reception for the Alaska governor at the Irish Pub in Center City on Sept. 26, the night of the first debate between Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

In late June, Snider contributed a total of $25,000 to the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to the records of the Federal Election Commission.

But Snider said that Palin's coming to the game "has nothing to do with politics. This is to have some fun with the fabulous statement she made."

As a rule, professional sports teams do not honor political candidates for fear of alienating their fans.

But there have been exceptions.

In July 2004, the Boston Red Sox let then-presidential candidate John Kerry, who also is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, throw out the first ball at a game against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Kerry was greeted with a mix of boos and cheers.

How Palin will be received remains to be seen. One fan who plans on attending the game, Will Lacey, said in an e-mail to the Flyers that he was "appalled" that the team would encourage "an atmosphere of polarization and dissent" by allowing the game to be turned into a "billboard for political advertisement."

Asked how he would respond to such concerns, Snider replied: "I'd say lighten up and have fun."

Obama actually arrives tomorrow for several political fund-raising events, including one at the Mount Airy home of Comcast executive David L. Cohen. That event features a solo performance by rocker Jon Bon Jovi, also an Obama supporter.

The Democratic candidate is scheduled to spend much of Saturday campaigning in the city, with a series of four neighborhood rallies in North, West, Northwest and Northeast Philadelphia.

Obama has not had an event in Philadelphia proper since drawing 35,000 to Independence Mall a few days before the Pennsylvania primary in April.

This flurry of activity - McCain and Palin were in Bethlehem yesterday, Obama in Abington last Friday - confirms that Pennsylvania remains a huge state in the electoral calculus for both sides, even though the most recent polls give Obama a lead averaging 12 points.

As the days pass, and Obama has gotten stronger in states President Bush won in 2004, it's becoming increasingly apparent that the Republicans, if they are to prevail, must carry at least one significant state that the Democrats carried in 2004.

Pennsylvania might be the GOP's best option, even with the polls, and it is a place where the McCain campaign continues to spend heavily on television.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.