11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Stump in Pa., McCain's Main Issue Is Obama

With 21 electoral votes and a swing-able population, Pennsylvania sits in the middle of the map like a big, juicy plum. Obama and McCain would each like it to fall on his side in November, obviously, and both have stepped up operations there in the final few weeks of the election. They face an uphill battle: Obama lost Pennsylvania by over nine points to Clinton in the primaries, and McCain must convince a Democratic-leaning state to tilt his way.

To get a sense of what was happening in the Philadelphia area, I headed up there this last week. In Media, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, the Obama campaign headquarters was handing out walk lists and selling yard signs. It was a beautiful day--perfect for football or pumpkins or presidential politics--and for the hour or so I was there a steady stream of traffic flowed in and out.

Both campaigns will tell you they're inundated with enthusiastic volunteers. That's likely true--but what's harder to gauge is the reactions of the people who aren't making the phone calls or canvassing. Frank, a professor at nearby Swarthmore College, said he was surprised by how many people he talked to who seemed legitimately undecided. A pair of colleagues said they encountered some racist remarks, and that a number of people spontaneously brought up Sarah Palin--both as a pro and a con for the GOP ticket. Although these reports are clearly not a scientific representation of anything, the anecdotes suggest that all the polls and news media in the world cannot track the conversations going on behind closed doors.

In that respect, it would seem Obama has more to lose: some have theorized that Clinton's unexpectedly wide margin of victory in the primaries could be attributed to the Bradley effect, in which voters say they'll cast their ballots for a non-white candidate but don't. Obama may also be particularly vulnerable in Pennsylvania because that was the state about which he said people were "bitter" and "clung to guns and religion." If Obama already has some ground to make up with working-class voters, especially men, then that is doubly so in northeastern Pennsylvania, with its culture of steel mills, race cars, and sports rivalries.

After I left Media, I drove toward the city--a drive that is revealing for all the demographics the campaigns must reach. A mall with a JC Penney and a Sears gave way to a mall anchored by a Macy's; I passed a Home Depot, gas at an expensive $3.50, and the Apple Pie Christian School. Beyond the suburbs, the buildings inched lower, and a cemetery turned into a junkyard and then some vacant lots. Gates began appearing on the doors and windows. The billboards peeled. I followed the trolley tracks into West Philly and parked beside a hair salon called "Under the Hajib." Not much was going on at the West Philly Obama campaign office--the rapper Little Bow Wow had appeared earlier and attracted some students--so I took the trolley underground and resurfaced downtown. There's hardly any need to chronicle the scene: Starbucks, Anthropologie, the Hilton. Big cities have come to resemble each other, and Philadelphia might've been Chicago or Manhattan except for the droves of people pouring out of a free Bruce Springsteen concert, sponsored by the Obama campaign.

According to concert-goers, Springsteen sang some of his greatest--and grittiest--songs, including "The Rising" and "Thunder Road," spoke about his support for Obama, and concluded with Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is My Land."

As a political event, the concert appeared to serve dual purposes: reward volunteers for their efforts and attract the white, suburban working class "Hillary Democrats"--the Springsteen fan base that the Obama campaign needs to reach. It's unclear how many people Springsteen swayed to Obama's message if only because the bulk of the people there were already on board ("You can't throw a stone in Philadelphia and not hit an Obama supporter," said Matt D'Annunzio, a fundraiser and team leader for the campaign), but the concert suggested that Obama campaign is using its deep coffers and celebrity surrogates to push beyond its boundaries and creep into territory that has not traditionally been friendly.

The McCain campaign, on the other hand, seems focused on shoring up the base and casting doubt on the opponent. On Wednesday, I sailed past Philadelphia and went an hour north to the Lehigh Valley, which used to be home to Bethlehem Steel and now sends workers to Mack Truck. (In a laundromat on the outskirts of town, a washing machine in the back is reserved for "heavily soiled work clothes.")

The entire McCain team--the senator, his wife, their daughter Meghan, and Gov. Sarah Palin--rolled into a packed auditorium at Lehigh University on the Straight Talk Express while the sound system played "Rocky." The music was familiar--Clinton used "Rocky" at a lot of her Pennsylvania events, too, and when McCain asked, "Which candidate's experience in government and life make him a more reliable leader?" he might've been borrowing a line from Clinton and changing the pronoun. Considering Clinton's success in Pennsylvania dipping into her playbook is likely a smart move, and both Palin and McCain went straight to voters' number-one issue by leading off their speeches with the economy.

Taken alone, the candidates' speeches covered much of the same substance as the debate the night before, with the addition of a particular attention to veterans--a core group of McCain supporters. Cindy McCain pointed out that both GOP candidates had sons in Iraq, Palin asked veterans to raise their hands, and McCain stressed his credentials as commander-in-chief.

More notable was the aggressive tone of the warm-up acts, which occupied the crowd for the hour or so before the candidates arrived. Bill Platt, the Lehigh County Republican chairman, encouraged supporters to spend nights volunteering, saying, "Think how you would feel if you woke up on November 5th and Barack Obama--Barack Hussein Obama--were president."

State Representative Karen Beyer said, "If I were [Obama's] teacher, I'd give him an F. And I'd give him a check, too, for talking too much." The line got a big laugh from the crowd, and she concluded, "On November 4th, we can all be Barack Obama's teacher. Let's send him to the corner!"

The remarks were striking not only for their personal, even mocking attacks, but for their proportion in the overall rally. While McCain's service to country was venerated by almost all who spoke, it was Obama who commanded the bulk of the speakers' time and attention. "I don't need any lessons about telling the truth to the American people," McCain said, a line I had not heard in his stump speech before. "But if I ever did need help in that regard, I probably wouldn't seek it from a politician from Chicago."

If the McCain campaign is seeking to attract undecided or disappointed Clinton voters, it has apparently determined that vinegar is a better lure than honey.