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LANCASTER, PennsylvaniaAs the presidential election campaign grows more frenzied, Pennsylvania looms ever larger on the political radar screen. Long viewed as pivotal, the Keystone State presents an enigmaa confusing demographic mélange where Republicans act like Democrats and vice versa, and where issues change from one region to another.
Out of a handful of swing battlegrounds, Pennsylvania may well turn out to be the most important, if the other battleground states play out as recent polls are showingBush leads in Ohio (by double digits, according to some polls) and Florida, while Kerry is in front in Michigan.
In Pennsylvania, the race appears to be neck and neck. Bush has a statistically insignificant lead with 9 percent of registered voters undecided, according to yesterday's Keystone Poll; he and Kerry are actually tied, if you just count likely voters, according to the poll.
Bush was here Wednesday, hitting King of Prussia in the crucial heavily populated, and fast-growing southeastern sector near Philadelphia, an area where median incomes range around $60,000 and people are mostly Republican but have voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. (In the '80s, they voted for Reagan and Bush.) Yesterday afternoon, Bush traveled to Latrobe, known as Reagan Democrat country. All told, the president, who lost Pennsylvania to Gore in 2000, has been in Pennsylvania 37 times since then. Friday will be Kerry's 17th visit since March. Surrogates, including the candidates' wives, barnstorm regularly. The state is so heavily assaulted by politicians that it's almost like the New Hampshire primaryonly bigger and far more complex.
With Kerry readjusting his campaign focus, the war in Iraq plus homeland security and the war on terror have congealed into one paramount issue, sweeping aside arguments over gay marriage, stem-cell research, and religion.
But economic questions, especially revolving around health care, are still said to out-rank the war as a topic in southeastern Pennsylvania. And all across Pennsylvania, gun ownership is a primary political topic, especially in what is known as the "T"the solidly Republican middle and top of the state.
Although the most recent Keystone Poll shows a slight lean toward Bush, Kerry has a good shot, says the poll's director, Terry Madonna, and his colleague Berwood Yost. Why? It's the economy, Madonna and Yost tell the Voice.
In a poll released today, Bush looks weak in Montgomery County and the northeast Philadelphia suburbs, which make up the 13th congressional district: Only 37 percent thought he deserved re-election, and 59 percent thought it was a time for a change.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, the battered manufacturing counties in and around Pittsburgh, economic issues ought to hold sway. But the GOP is trying to skip over the economy and health care by touting Bush as the right guy for war. "Economics could trump social issues," says Keystone's Yost. "The southwest is slow-growing, has a lower level of education. If people were to vote on the economy there, they'd vote against Bush."
The two big cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, will go Democratic, but like all over the state, each party has to turn out a big vote. A factor here may be the lack of enthusiasm that some observers say Kerry seems to engender among urban rank-and-file blacks.
"Whichever party gets its support base out probably wins Pennsylvaniaat the moment," pollster Madonna says. "Republicans have better organization, but the Democrats are putting an unprecedented effort into field work. We're seeing more field organization work in this state than I've seen since the '60s."