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How Key Is the Keystone State?

The race may matter more, and less, than campaigns believe

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Listening to David Plouffe earlier this month talk about Pennsylvania's role in the upcoming primary election, you got a "whatever happens, happens" type of vibe.

"[Hillary Clinton] should be expected to win by some margin," Obama's campaign manager told reporters with an excitement level not usually seen outside of a concession speech. "They have quite an advantage there."

Former President Bill Clinton at a March 11 rally in Beaver County - CHARLIE DEITCH
  • Charlie Deitch
  • Former President Bill Clinton at a March 11 rally in Beaver County

And they're working to exploit it. Former President Bill Clinton made four Pennsylvania stops in two days, including visits to Beaver and Washington counties. At Beaver County's Center High School, Clinton was greeted by a throng of supporters who cheered him like a rock star, including one student who wore a shirt bearing the phrase: "Bill, Be My First Man."

"I told Hillary that I wanted to go to Western Pennsylvania because it's a lot like Arkansas. It's just like home," Clinton told the hundreds of supporters in the small high school gym.

The Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, hit Point Park University on March 12 and Hillary Clinton spent March 14 and 15 here, attending parades, holding rallies and collecting endorsements from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato.

Obama and his wife, meanwhile, each spent a day in Philadelphia before canceling a rally in Beaver County to return to Washington, D.C., for several Senate votes. Obama rescheduled his visit for March 17 -- the day this issue went to press -- and Plouffe pledged, "We're going to be campaigning a lot in Pennsylvania." Still, he added that the "campaign won't be defined by that state," and it seems that early talk of Pennsylvania being a kingmaker -- playing the pivotal role of a New Hampshire or Ohio -- was premature.

Polls have shown Clinton leading statewide by as much as 20 points. That lead may be hard for Obama to overcome, and given the fact that he leads in the race for delegates who choose the Democratic nominee, he may not need to. But that doesn't mean the state is unimportant.

"I do think this rhetoric is a bit of a campaign strategy," says G. Terry Madonna, a noted pollster and professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "They're trying to lower expectations by saying that she's expected to win."

And if Clinton scores anything less than a blowout, Pennsylvania will have been very much worth Obama's time. A moral victory could be just as important as the other kind.

"I think a lead of 10 points or more is a decisive win in anyone's book," Madonna says. "But if he can keep it 52 to 48, the Obama campaign can easily claim a victory."

Supporters at the March 11 rally - CHARLIE DEITCH

But all told, Madonna says even a major victory -- say by 20 points -- only means a swing of "eight or nine delegates." Republicans use a winner-take-all approach to primaries in which the winner of a state's popular vote gets all the delegates, much as the Electoral College generally awards all of a state's electoral votes to the winner in the general election. But Democrats divvy up delegates proportionally, according to the percentage each candidate earns. So, adds Madonna, "It's possible that Hillary Clinton can win decisively, but not gain much ground" in the larger battle.

But Gerald Shuster, who teaches political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, says there may be more at stake than just Pennsylvania's votes.

"I think sometimes it can sound like a cliché, but momentum is going to be very important," Shuster says. "Clinton won by 10 points in Ohio, and if she can duplicate that in Pennsylvania, it's going to cause a lot of voters to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, look at what's going on here.'

"I think momentum helped Obama a lot when he won state after state. People look at who's doing well. So a big win here may not allow her a significant cut into Obama's delegate lead, but there is a lot to be said for gaining momentum as Denver [where the Democratic convention will be held this summer] draws near."

If Obama were to somehow pull out a win in Pennsylvania, "it's pretty much over," says Madonna. And while few give him much of a chance to do so, Madonna says it could happen. All Obama has to do, ironically enough, is follow a road map drawn up by Clinton's biggest Pennsylvania supporter, Gov. Ed Rendell.

In their monthly column, Politically Uncorrected, Madonna and co-author Michael Young say the key to an Obama victory is winning big in Philadelphia and the rest of the southeastern part of the state. This is the one area where Obama leads Clinton -- and Madonna and Young say he has to capitalize on that fact by generating excitement there.

In his campaigns for governor, the pair point out, "Rendell was able to turnout a higher percentage of Democratic voters in the southeast than voted in the southwest. This was accomplished in part by increasing Democratic registration -- including luring some Republicans across party lines, but mostly by exciting the voters in the Philadelphia TV market."

That may leave Western Pennsylvania feeling left out at times. But as Shuster says, "I don't think anyone expected this much attention on the state. I think it's super that Pennsylvania is in this position."

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