Two things are clear about how the final weeks of the Presidential campaign will play out: It's going to consist of a whole new line of GOP attacks on Barack Obama, and Pennsylvania voters are going to be in the crossfire.
As NBC and its political correspondent Chuck Todd have repeatedly said in recent days, "If there is one blue state the McCain campaign may never give up on, it's the Keystone State. Of all the Kerry blue states, it's the most competitive -- even right now at a time that appears to be Obama's high-water mark. Of the remaining blue states in play, Pennsylvania may be the most culturally sensitive and may explain why the McCain folks want to shift the debate a bit to character."
What this means for Pennsylvania is: We're going to see the candidates -- McCain especially -- at their worst. And the world will probably see the worst of Pennsylvania.
Being a swing state, after all, means having the national press descend upon your gritty, hardscrabble communities and point out how some of the people living in them aren't too bright. We've seen this from the Washington Post and other papers in the past (coverage expertly lampooned by the Tube City Almanac). And it's already started again.
Yesterday, NPR sent a correspondent from village to dell, talking to the just-plain-folks out there in the rusting mill towns and backwoods crossroads. One undecided voter said that Obama "scares me. He's got the right answer for everything" -- and he meant this as a criticism.
I'm afraid that if there are too many folks like this one, John McCain may win the state -- he's probably locked up those voters who want the wrong answers from their politicians. And the conventional wisdom here is that rural whites who express misgivings about Obama are racist, and are predisposed to swallow attacks on "character."
But I'm not giving up yet. For one thing, I went to college in small-town Pennsylvania, a community that could easily be the poster-child for Pennsylvania's blend of post-industrial/rural resentment. And yet the number of interracial relationships in that town was so large that my soc/anth professor -- an African-American woman from big-city Chicago, no less -- pondered conducting a study on it. So while McCain will certainly do better in the rural areas than elsewhere, I won't be surprised if Obama holds his own there.
Pennsylvania's primary in April offers proof. McCain's surrogates may try to dredge up the film footage of Jeremiah "God damn America" Wright again, for example. But the first time that stuff came up was in the weeks before the Pennsylvania primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. This was also when Obama's famed remarks about "clinging to guns and religion" surfaced. As I wrote at the time, Pennsylvania was going to be a proving ground to see whether voters could get "past guilt-by-association attacks." And based on the outcome, I think the answer is "yes."
Of course, Clinton won the state, by a little more than 9 percentage points. But bear in mind that polling shows she'd been up by 20 points or more in 2007 and early 2008. In other words, Obama cut her lead in half, even as Pennsylvania Democrats were confronted with the most damaging allegations against him. And Pennsylvanians have seen all this stuff before, thanks to the Clinton campaign (which, by the way, probably did Obama a favor by helping to innoculate them against the attacks this time around).
Pennsylvania Republicans may weigh these character questions differently on Nov. 4, naturally, just as NBC suggests. But there are two reasons to be optimistic. First, because of the way this election is different from every other one. And second, because of the ways in which it is the same.
What's different, as others have said, is that we're facing an economic crisis unlike any since the end of the Second World War. Even pundits, who as a rule can't tear themselves away from a good juicy attack, say that wedge issues or guilt-by-association tactics don't resonate as well when there are actual, you know, issues to deal with.
The other reason I don't think McCain's tactics will work is because we've heard them so many times already. Every four years, the GOP trots out this line that the Democratic Presidential candidate hates the country he wants to lead, and strives to weaken it from within. They make this charge whether a Democrat was a "draft dodger" or a decorated veteran. Which means that at some point, the accusation begins to wear kind of thin.
Don't get me wrong. I've been waiting for the attack ads for months ... I can already imagine the montage of Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, photos of Obama with his hand not over his heart, not wearing a flag pin ... And I'm sure such an ad would titillate the tinfoil-hat brigades. But those people will be voting Republican anyway. An independent voter is going to be less impressed with these attacks, because of all the over-the-top attacks in the past: "Yeah, yeah, Democrats coddle terrorists and want to weaken their nation from within ... what else is new? What else have you got."
I could be wrong. But I'd rather err on the side of overestimating Pennsylvania voters. Especially because John McCain is clearly willing to do the opposite.