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Waiting for hope: A crowd gathers on the steps of the State Capitol in Harrisburg to greet Barack Obama.

Photo: David King

Knock Down Drag Out

On the ground in Pennsylvania as Clinton and Obama fight for Momentum

By David King

Anton Konev, an Albany resident and a Barack Obama supporter, approaches the side door of a vinyl-sided house. He checks a sheet with the names and addresses of undecided voters and possible supporters, grabs some materials from his girlfriend, Magda Korewa, confers with his friend Benjamin Riel, and then knocks on the door. “Hello, Mrs. Cunningham, it is Anton Konev with the Barack Obama campaign,” he says as an elderly woman pokes her head out of the door. “Still haven’t made up my mind,” she half mumbles, half slurs, suffering the absence of teeth. Konev presents the woman with the latest Obama campaign material, which includes Obama’s recent speech on race. She looks over the materials. One pamphlet features a smiling Obama. “A lot of people don’t like coloreds. They might kill him,” the woman states matter-of-factly. Konev and his companions’ jaws drop, they stammer about increases in security since the last time a president was shot. “I don’t know if I can vote for her either,” the woman reassures the group. “She might get shot, too!”

Route 29 south winds its way into the small town of Montrose, the county seat of Susquehanna County, Pa., past rugged-looking food stops built from unfinished wood, and community churches with signs that read “Christ Lives!”

Teens on ATVs stir up swaths of dust as they swerve in and out of gravel driveways on the side of the road. American-built, extended-cab pickup trucks with oversized tires rumble through town, while the young, blond-haired youths sitting in the truck beds wave at passing traffic. Everything in the center of town on route 29S smells like exhaust and diesel fuel.

It’s here in Montrose at St. Paul’s church, founded in 1831, that the Barack Obama campaign has its Susquehanna County headquarters, and where volunteers from all over the Northeast have come this weekend to work phone banks and knock on doors to remind local Democrats to get out and vote for their candidate.

It’s the Saturday before the Pennsylvania primary, and Clinton has yet to claim victory in the state by her eventual 10-point margin. The consensus a few days ago, as it is now—especially among the Democratic Party faithful—is that the Democratic primary has gone on for far too long and its candidates are starting to get permanently bruised by their mudslinging.

Although Obama currently has a lead in regular delegates, popular votes and states won, it is unlikely that either candidate will be able to achieve the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination before the Democratic convention in August.

But on the ground in Pennsylvania today the battle rages for votes, as the Obama supporters try to make things as close as possible in a primary state that they correctly assume will be won by Clinton. The kind of barnstorming and state crisscrossing done by Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania represents the kind of ground game usually reserved for first-to-vote states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Clinton’s campaign has been trailing Obama’s fundraising for quite some time. Clinton entered April with $10.3 million in campaign debt and $9.5 million on hand to cover that debt. According to The New York Times, Obama is spending $0.75 of every dollar he brings in, while Clinton is spending $1.10.

Konev says that a Clinton win in Pennsylvania does not guarantee her ability to continue her campaign.

“It will be interesting whether or not the Clinton campaign might realize the financial picture for them. Forget about the fact that she is trailing in delegates, trailing in states, trailing in pledged delegates, and trailing in the popular vote. The biggest thing is, she started this month with $9.3 million in debt, and she had to have spent a lot of money this month alone on Pennsylvania. I think the sad reality is she is not able to raise as much money as she needs to continue to run a successful campaign.”

Door to door: Anton Konev and his companions canvas for Obama.

Photo: David King Photo

A number of major publications have reported that Clinton is facing pressure from party insiders to exit the race, rather than fighting a losing battle while damaging Obama. And yet Clinton’s campaign knows that a convincing landslide in Pennsylvania, where 158 delegates are at stake, might give her the boost she needs to surge into the convention as a legitimate candidate. “I have come to the conclusion that this race will continue until the last primary or caucus vote is cast,” Obama told the press Tuesday. “And that’s not that far away.”

Obama has failed to win states like New Hampshire and Ohio at crucial times that would have almost guaranteed Clinton’s exit from the race, and again with Pennsylvania, Obama will prove incapable of delivering a finishing blow.

As the Clinton campaign points out, Obama has lost these major states while operating out of a much larger campaign chest than Clinton’s.

But Konev points out that Obama has a bigger hurdle to overcome in every state he goes to except Illinois—his name. “The Obama campaign came in with a significant disadvantage. He has very little name recognition. His name was never on the ballot in New York or Pennsylvania before. To overcome that kind of handicap is really something that is impressive.”

After the victory for Clinton Tuesday night, her campaign announced that it had received another $3 million dollars in contributions online, but it is still unclear whether her margin of victory is large enough to spur enough new donors to her debt- straddled campaign and convince superdelegates of her renewed viability. Clinton has already maxed out donations from the majority of her more established contributors and has now switched to asking for smaller donations via the Internet, a strategy Obama’s campaign has been using for months.

“A psychic said we will have a colored president someday. Maybe he is it. I don’t know,” the woman at the door tells Konev. “At least he is young and not old and fragile like me.” Konev deftly tries to turn the conversation toward the candidate he supports. “He represents a new kind of politics that hasn’t been bought out by lobbyists,” he assures her.

“Welp,” the woman says, smacking her lips, “you are the first ones who ever come around, so we might. We just might.” Konev thanks the woman and heads down the dirt driveway while consulting his sheets.

As the Times recently reported, the largest defining difference between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters is age, with older voters highly favoring Clinton and younger voters favoring Obama. Out here in Montrose, the young voters seem to be few and far between. It’s a Saturday and only a few middle-age women answer the door for Konev. Two of them assure him that their entire households are voting Obama.

However, the majority of northeastern Pennsylvania fits into the mold of what has traditionally become the typical Clinton voter—the white, blue-collar rural American. Northeastern Pennsylvanians have lower education rates and pay scales than the rest of the state, and there are higher numbers of union members and Catholics in the area—all groups that tend to support Clinton over Obama. On Tuesday, they all show up in full force to give Clinton her win. According to ABC News exit polls, “Clinton again won seniors, this time by 60-39 percent. And she won voters who haven’t been through college by a bigger-than-usual 57-43 percent margin.” Women also showed up in record margins to vote for Clinton.

These kinds of margins fuel Clinton’s argument that she is the more electable candidate in the general election, because she can win big states and connects with a more rural electorate.

Clinton also has ties to the region, having spent a lot of time as a child in the city of Scranton. She is fond of telling stories about her grandfather working in a local mill. A Quinnipiac University poll, released Monday, showed Clinton leading by a 30-point margin in northeastern Pennsylvania.

This past Monday, Clinton told a crowd gathered at the Scranton Cultural Center that “People will be looking at Pennsylvania—and I will be looking at northeastern Pennsylvania,”

According to a representative of the Obama campaign stationed in Montrose, “People here don’t tell their friends they are an Obama supporter, but they will tell a stranger.” But in urban areas of Pennsylvania, support for Obama has been more than apparent.

This past Friday, 35,000 people showed up at a rally in Philadelphia. “It was bigger than Oprah!” Obama tells those assembled at another rally in Harrisburg on Saturday, referring to the fact that the Philadelphia rally drew more than the 30,000 crowd that showed up when Oprah Winfrey joined Obama for a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Obama’s rally on the steps of the state Capitol in Harrisburg feels a lot like a block party. People from neighboring states like Delaware and Maryland swarm into the city carrying shirts featuring the cover of Ebony magazine with Obama on the cover above the title, “In Our Lifetime.” The crowd buzzes about a report by the Huffington Post that featured an audio recording of Clinton blaming her caucus’ losses on “the activist base” of the Democratic Party and Moveon.org.

Joined by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Obama seizes the antiwar movement’s resentment of Clinton, asking who they would want answering the 3 AM phone call: someone who got it right on Iraq or someone who supported the war? Obama reassures the crowd that, come November, the Democrats will be unified, and takes a jab at Clinton, saying, “Sen. Clinton would be vastly better than George Bush, but that is a very low bar.”

On Tuesday, Obama wins Philadelphia by large margins. He wins nearly 90 percent of the black vote; he beats Clinton among voters with higher education, and he beats Clinton in votes from men.

At her 7 AM rally Monday in Scranton, Clinton is far less aggressive. She avoids mentioning the name of her opponent, and is generally positive—except for an occasional swipe, like telling the crowd, “We need a president who is going to solve our problems, not just talk about them.” And surprisingly, unlike the block-party vibe at Obama’s rally in Harrisburg, Clinton’s early-morning stop in Scranton feels a lot like a pep rally for a homecoming college sports team.

Clinton focuses on her family’s connection to the area and tells the crowd, “I will never forget the people here.” The crowd chanted, “Madame President!” and “One Day to Victory!”

Front and center: a young Obama supporter deep in the crowd at the Harrisburg rally.

Photo: David King

Clinton and Obama had both resorted to mud-flinging during the campaign, but ABC exit polls from the Tuesday primary show that both candidates tarnished themselves in doing so. Sixty-seven percent of surveyed voters said that Clinton “attacked Obama unfairly.” Obama came under fire for comments describing rural and small-town people as “bitter.”

While Obama has the support of Sen. Bob Casey, Clinton has the support of a lot of the remaining old-school Democratic politicians in northeast Pennsylvania. Casey is not known for his mobilizing efforts, whereas Clinton has the support of local mayors and politicians who have large organizations at their fingertips.

The night before Clinton’s rally in her old hangout of Scranton, Obama holds a rally at Riverfront Sports, the city’s indoor soccer facility. A large crowd pushes itself toward Obama, chanting “Obama” and “Yes we can!,” after the candidate launches into one of his sharpest attacks on Clinton of the entire campaign. “When she talks about experience, what she really means is, ‘I’ve been around the track quite a few times, I know how it works.’ So she takes more money from Washington lobbyists than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, because she says, and she said this in a debate recently, that lobbyists are real Americans. Now, I don’t know if any of you have lobbyists in Washington representing you, but I don’t think so. . . . Then this weekend she starts running ads saying, ‘Oh, no, no, he’s actually taking money from these folks,’ even though we have sent back money that was from lobbyists, we sent back money from PACs. But she just ignored the facts. And listen, understand the argument that she’s making. She’s essentially saying: ‘Yeah, I’m bad but he’s just as bad.’ What kind of argument is that? What kind of inspirational message is that?”

Konev, who has ventured down from Montrose to volunteer at the rally, gets to stand behind the stage and even gets to shake Obama’s hand. His girlfriend tells him to never wash the hand.

Back in Montrose, Konev and his companions walk up the steep slope of Public Avenue. Konev points to the local movie theater. “Things basically just stop here on Sunday,” he says. “There are only two movie showings on Sunday.” The marquee advertises a double showing of 10,000 B.C. and College Road Trip.

The group hangs Obama literature on the doors of homes where no one answers, and then something catches Konev’s eye. An older man and a group of well-dressed younger gentlemen are pulling candidate signs out of the back of a convertible with a Utah license plate. Konev approaches the men and asks if their candidate is a Democrat. “No, a Republican,” says one of the younger men. “Who you with?” responds another man. “We are with the Sen. Barack Obama campaign,” responds Konev. “Oh, Democrats,” moans the older man. Konev tries to strike up a conversation with one of the talkative younger men but the older man interrupts. “They are Democrats. We aren’t getting their votes, and they aren’t getting ours. So stop talking and let’s go.”

If the campaign for Pennsylvania has answered any question, that question might be: “Is the extended primary hurting Democrats?” During the final days of the campaign, both camps ratcheted up their attacks on each other and ran a number of negative television spots. The Clinton campaign ran an add featuring some of the greatest disasters in American history including pictures of 9/11 and a video of Osama bin Laden with a voice intoning over the add, “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”

The recent editorial “The Low Road to Victory” in The New York Times called on both candidates to address the issues and abandon personal attacks, and for the superdelegates to weigh in before the candidates do more damage to each other. “No matter what the high-priced political operatives (from both camps) may think, it is not a disadvantage that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton share many of the same essential values and sensible policy prescriptions. It is their strength, and they are doing their best to make voters forget it. And if they think that only Democrats are paying attention to this spectacle, they’re wrong.”

Konev spends his Monday and Tuesday practicing what some of the Obama campaign workers jokingly refer to as “knock and drag”—reminding voters all over rural northeastern Pennsylvania to get out and vote for Obama. Unlike the campaigning in Montrose that Konev and his companions do door-to-door, out in the rural areas like Tunkhannock, Konev drives down dirt roads for miles to find registered Democrats, and even some Republicans. “We got one woman, a registered Republican, who told us, ‘I wrote in Obama.’ ” She didn’t reregister in the Democratic Party, however, but wrote in Barack Obama and convinced her husband to do the same.

According to exit polling, one in 10 voters had switched from Republican to Democrat to vote in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary.

“We were in a pretty rural neighborhood in Pennsylvania with dirt roads, houses with no access but dirt roads, and people were still friendly to Barack Obama,” Konev says. “It was very surprising, because the news media has already played this as a 100-percent Hillary town, and I think we are really split.” Konev says he has no plans to travel to the few remaining primary states to canvas, but he knows a lot of his fellow Albany Obama supporters are planning to canvas in Indiana and Puerto Rico.

“It is a large financial commitment,” he says. “But our office will be kept open. We will probably be downgrading to one-half of the space we rent. The biggest activity now for us will be phone banking.” Konev says he is proud to have been a part of Obama’s efforts in New York. Konev notes that only two permanent staffers were hired by the campaign, to man an Obama office in New York City and coordinate the grassroots efforts that saw the birth of offices like the all-volunteer Obama office on Lexington Avenue in Albany.

Konev and Riel trudge down the old stone sidewalk that lines the hilly road leading out of Montrose. A few men work on a truck, a number of people are gardening, and a young, blond teen runs up and down the hill talking on his cell phone. An older man in a sweater beams a smile at the pair from the other side of the road, and Konev greets him with a “Hello.”

“What you doing over there?” the elderly man asks, still smiling. Konev crosses the road and introduces himself. “I am Anton Konev with the Barack Obama campaign.” The man’s face sours and his hands rise in the air as if he is being sold a bag of goods he does not want to buy. “No thank you, no thank you” the man says, waving Konev away. The man turns his back on Konev and enters his house. “That was a pretty strong rejection,” Konev says as he strolls back across the dusty road, shaking his head.

dking@metroland.net


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