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Mayhill Fowler

Mayhill Fowler

Posted: April 1, 2008 07:23 AM

Pennsylvania Voters Dismiss Obama's Momentum


At the Obama Town Hall Meeting in Harrisburg on Sunday night, capital city bloggers (Progressives, all) were gloomy. Looking around the place, they could find nobody from state or city government, not even "down to the third degree," as one put it. When Hillary Clinton had come through two weeks before, everybody had shown. There are a couple of interesting things about Clinton's dominance in Pennsylvania at a time when Obama continues to lengthen his lead nationally, both in the polls and in pledged delegates (Even Mississippi took a delegate away from Clinton yesterday and gave him or her to Obama.) First of all, you have to ask yourself why government officials and employees are supporting Clinton if hers is a lost cause. Maybe ordinary Quaker Staters don't grasp the significance of math and momentum but surely civil servants do. Part of the answer lies in the stubbornness and civic pride of these Quaker Staters. They want their chance to vote, they're looking forward to it, they've been waiting patiently for their turn--and they darn well don't want to be told their vote is only a rubber stamp on Obama's passport to the nomination.

Another reason for Clinton's appeal among the Pennsylvania political class speaks to the heart of her strength as a candidate and potential president. Such professionals know that she will keep an eye on specific projects and make sure of their implementation. During Obama's Harrisburg Q & A, a lady complained about "the way America treats its cities." Specifically, she wanted to know if Obama could assure the good citizens of Harrisburg that the new federal courthouse, which was supposed to be built in the inner city neighborhood only two blocks away, would in fact be built. The federal government had approved the funding (130 million), but the money had never been released. One thing about Barack Obama for which you have to give him credit is that, unlike most politicians, when he doesn't know the answer he admits as much. So the best Obama could reply was that "if Bob Casey likes it," then the plan must be a good one. Clinton, on the other hand, likely knows every detail about that project and has already promised every Harrisburg official that she will personally make sure of the courthouse.

Harrisburg really really wants that courthouse, as the questioner made clear to Obama. Harrisburg really needs that courthouse. Driving through Pennsylvania, which is the first state I've covered for this election that's new to me, I've been shocked and depressed by the dereliction of Pennsylvania's cities. As a former Memphian, I know what once thriving midtowns and neighborhoods turning to wasteland look like. But Johnstown, Lancaster, Allentown and Harrisburg all had farther to fall than Memphis, which never got very far from an agrarian economy and never had much manufacturing, and therefore the crumbling of Penn cities is in no way picturesque. Political observers frequently comment that there is little difference between Clinton and Obama on the issues, and certainly this is true. But by now it is also clear that the two candidates have very different political temperaments. Clinton is a problem-solver whose approach is methodical, incremental and serial. In her speeches, she talks about the tasks ahead as if they were beads to be strung one-by-one. Obama, on the other hand, looks at the country's problems from a larger viewpoint. Despite all his policy papers and the details of his various plans, Obama is never able to overcome the impression listeners have that he is not really interested in all the specifics the way Clinton is. And these potential voters are right. Obama has a vision of where he wants to take the country, and certainly he keeps his eye on the major road markers. But Obama is the candidate with the bigger picture. He has that rare quality of mind for holding opposite perspectives in equilibrium. At one and the same time, he can keep the entire landscape in view while synchronizing all the foreground details.

The question is to what extent Pennsylvanians, who can use all the little federal programs they can lay their hands on, appreciate Obama's larger vision. All I can tell you is that I've met many here like the many elsewhere who get what Obama's about. Last night at the Obama rally in Allentown, I talked to John, a sixty-something like me, who observed that "we are totally on the cusp, the nation is on the cusp of significant changes." This is the kind of response to Obama I often find out on the campaign trail, and it drives some people wild because, of course, exactly what these changes are is unclear. John went on to say that it is time for "a younger generation" to take the reins of power. His attitude is part of one of the forces driving Election '08: the rise of the younger voter. And it's not just that so many young people have registered to vote, have already voted, have thrown themselves into various campaigns (Ron Paul is still going going going in Pennsylvania.) It's that children have taught their parents. Last night I met Barbara, who like Bob Casey and Caroline Kennedy and Claire McCaskill has been turned to Obama by daughters. Barbara has always voted Republican (for Bush both times) --until now. And she thinks that Obama can do something with the country "if he can get other people to move their butts" -- which is exactly Obama's own caveat in every speech, if in slightly more elegant language.

And it's not just that Obama wants us to move our butts. The man wants to make weight loss a centerpiece of his health care plan, and he's mentioned our national avoirdupois in every Pennsylvania event so far. For the first time, however, in Harrisburg I heard Obama mention "incentivizing wellness programs" as a part of the prevention component of his health care plan. Clearly, Mr. He Who Is Thin As A Rail and Works Out Every Day is going to be a bit of a taskmaster if elected President. After the town hall meeting in Johnstown on Saturday, I chatted briefly with Tammy and her friend Shari. When I asked the ladies what had struck them about Obama, Tammy said she liked the dictum to parents to turn off the TV, to take responsibility--she paused--to exercise. The three of us looked at one another and laughed conspiratorily, for all three of us are plumpish. There's always been a note of tough love in Obama's exhortations to the American people; now that note is more dominant. He emphasizes our collective need to cut down both on calories and oil, to take responsibility, to ready our children for school, to prepare for sacrifice to get things done. Curiously, tough love hits a chord with Obama's listeners. Both Tammy and Shari had been Clinton supporters until they heard Obama take questions from his audience in Johnstown. "I'm a teacher," Tammy went on to say, "and I appreciate the fact that he also has a vision for education." She had gone to hear Clinton at Penn State Fayette, but she felt that she got "a more honest vibe" from Obama. Shari said that Obama's promise to put health care negotiations on C-Span had won her over.

The promise of transparency, the honest vibe, the vision thing -- throw in Obama's sense of humor and his refusal to demonize his opponent(s) -- and you've got much the same reasons Pennsylvanians as Iowans choose Obama, particularly when, like Tammy and Shari, they get a chance to see him in person. The problem for Obama in Pennsylvania, of course, is that not that many are going to be able to attend his town hall meetings or to go bowling with him, like some lucky Altoonans did on Saturday night. Altoona is in hardscrabble western PA, which is not supposed to be Obama country, but all it took was one Saturday night date for a couple hundred in the small city to choose Obama. Talking with some of the crowd in the bowling alley parking lot, I watched husbands and wives fall for Obama like nine-pins--and this was even before he emerged from his evening of "four gutter balls and a strike" to shake hands. Everybody was on cell phones, providing friends and neighbors with a minute-by-minute account of Obama's bowling adventure and his chowdown at Texas Hot Dogs, which nobody there had even seen, only the hour before. Sometimes all it takes is the personal touch--forget the programs and policies. It's the simple fact of the candidate showing up, shaking a hand, signing a book or a cap or a bill envelope--actions that validate a shared humanity. Of course, Clinton could come through next week and the nine-pins could fall the other way. But sometimes a chain reaction is set in motion that is hard to break. At Pleasant Valley Bowl, for example, a young sailor, home on leave, announced to the crowd that his shipmates aboard the U.SS. Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf are "all for Obama." The people standing around him nodded, taking this in.

Pennsylvania also reminds me of Iowa in its dynamic of the three-way race. Just as John Edwards was the wild card in Iowa, making volatile what even then was a Clinton-Obama competition, so another John is very much a part of this Democratic contest. John McCain is the elephant in the room that Democratic strategizers and organizers have trouble dealing with but that Pennsylvania voters confront every day. I saw the various combinations of this three-way while trapped for two hours inside the Secret Service cordon outside Altoona's Texas Hot Dogs. Polling my fellow spectators, their preferences fell fairly evenly McCain-Obama-Clinton 27-25-20. Of course, Clinton may have had a poorer showing because it was Obama, not she, chomping on a prized Altoona dog. But what was interesting was the way folks shuffled their choices depending on who gets the Democratic nomination. Two retired union men are McCain forever--although one shouldn't count because he has never voted and is proud of it. Their best friend took the Texas Hot Dog moment to "come out" for Obama. It seems he had liked Obama all along and now didn't care who knew it. This announcement stunned his cousins in the crowd, all of whom were Clinton supporters with McCain as a second choice. Another couple for McCain said that if he "didn't show well" (they had just come from the dog show in Pittsburg) they might vote for Obama. A man who had brought his grandsons downtown for hot dogs said that he was for McCain but that he had promised his wife that if Clinton got the nomination he would vote for her, since the wife was volunteering for Clinton. A lot of horsetrading is going on, and at least for now McCain is the escape valve for blowing off steam coming from fervid believers in both Clinton and Obama.

The second question is whether Obama's "Road to Change" bus tour introduces him to enough Pennsylvanians so that he can establish a presence for himself here. Today the tour reaches Scranton, the stronghold of Clinton Country. We'll see how this particular day on the road plays out.