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Obama Changes Approach to Reach Blue-Collar Voters in Pennsylvania

Sen. Barack Obama responds to questions during a town hall meeting at Dunmore Community Center in Scranton, Pa.
Sen. Barack Obama responds to questions during a town hall meeting at Dunmore Community Center in Scranton, Pa. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- When Sen. Barack Obama's bus rolls to a stop Wednesday in Philadelphia, he will have spent six days on the road and $3 million in television ads trying to bolster his chances in a state where polls show him running well behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

A health nut, Obama (Ill.) has consumed hot dogs, french fries and homemade chocolates. He has sipped a few Yuengling beers. He has largely skipped arena-filling rallies in favor of town-hall-style events and casual visits, delivering populist appeals to the small-town, working-class voters who have proven most resistant to his candidacy.

Despite a few stumbles -- at an Altoona bowling alley, Obama rolled a ball into a gutter on his first try -- political observers say he has started to make the inroads with voters he will need to cut into Clinton's lead.

"The consensus is, this is a pretty successful tour for Obama," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "He's hitting the right themes. I would be surprised if this doesn't move numbers."

Mark Nevins, Clinton's Pennsylvania spokesman, conceded to reporters on the candidate's campaign bus that Obama's aggressive efforts are making a difference.

Clinton is running a state campaign similar to Obama's, mixing small-scale and larger events that focus on pocketbook issues such as middle-class tax cuts and the creation of new manufacturing jobs. Her crowds are also boisterous, filled with shout-outs and standing ovations, along with signs that say "Don't quit."

She has taken to comparing herself to Rocky Balboa, the underdog boxer who does not know how to give in or give up. She walked onto the stage at an event here on Tuesday as the theme music of the film "Rocky" was played, after earlier invoking the fictional prizefighter in a speech.

"I know what it's like to stumble. I know what it means to get knocked down, but I've never stayed down," Clinton told AFL-CIO members in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

This gritty, ground-level strategy carried Clinton to a convincing victory in Ohio, a state with economic challenges and working-class demographics similar to Pennsylvania's. Whatever inroads Obama may be making, Madonna noted, he "still faces the inevitable problem of unfavorable demographics. We have more Catholics, old people, union members and conservative Democrats than Ohio."

Clinton also enjoys the strong support of Gov. Edward G. Rendell, the mayors of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and other prominent Democratic leaders.

If Obama loses badly in Pennsylvania on April 22, the momentum could shift to Clinton going into May 6, when Indiana and North Carolina vote. A poor showing in another general-election swing state would also raise questions among superdelegates -- the party leaders and elected officials who will probably determine the Democratic nominee -- about whether Obama could beat Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in November.

The Obama campaign has tried to lower its bar for success in Pennsylvania and has signaled an intention to trumpet anything short of a blowout victory by Clinton as one of its most significant triumphs of the primary season.


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