What Pennsylvania Voters Are Saying

By David S. Broder
Thursday, April 17, 2008

UPPER DUBLIN, Pa. -- For 40 of his 65 years, ever since he first registered, Martin Greenblatt has been voting Republican in this Philadelphia suburb. Through much of the past winter, the retired teacher considered himself a supporter of Rudy Giuliani. But when the former New York mayor quit the race without a single primary victory, Greenblatt made a radical decision.

He reregistered as a Democrat so he could vote for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in next Tuesday's primary. His vote will be counted along with thousands of others to be cast in the Philadelphia suburbs, traditionally the votes that anoint the winner in Pennsylvania contests.

In a day of interviewing outside the library in this Montgomery County community just before yesterday's Democratic debate in Philadelphia, Greenblatt's story was one of many describing the strange journeys that voters have taken to their current positions -- and the disquiet some of them feel about the votes they are about to cast.

While Clinton had more support in these interviews than Obama (or Republican John McCain), it is obvious that all the campaign time the candidates have lavished on Pennsylvania since Ohio and Texas voted for Clinton and McCain on March 4 has fueled more doubts than enthusiasm.

Greenblatt is typical. Asked about McCain, this longtime Republican said, "I don't like his [Iraq] war policy. I supported the war at the beginning, but I'm increasingly disillusioned with it. McCain just seems to want to keep it going."

Obama has little appeal to Greenblatt. "He hasn't had the experience," Greenblatt said, a sentiment I heard many times from other voters. "Two years in the Senate, and one of them he spent running for president. And I'm not happy with Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright," Obama's controversial former pastor.

Clinton fares better with Greenblatt. "She is a tough lady," he said. "Lots of experience. And she's built a good team." Still, he said that "she is not the best candidate we could have, just the best available."

Another Democratic voter, Ellen Sharm, 49, of Fort Washington, is unequivocally opposed to Clinton, because "my father hated Bill Clinton and he hated her."

Sharm herself is equivocal about Obama and McCain, and she said she is "halfway between" their opposing views on Iraq -- with Obama urging an immediate start on a pullout and McCain saying the United States should remain there in force until Iraq is stable. Sharm described her own position on the war as "wishy-washy" and, while her disqualification of Clinton "out of respect for my father" dictates a vote for Obama in the primary, she said "if it's Obama versus McCain, I'll have to consider" what to do in November.

Obama has made some gains among these voters, with one crediting the Illinois senator's ads the past two weeks for a shift from a certain-for-Clinton ballot to undecided. But many others said they remain uncertain about Obama's specific policies and skeptical about his short résumé.

But none of that deters the youngest voter in our sample, 26-year-old stage manager Francis Sapienza of Fort Washington. "It's Obama for sure," he said. "It may be idealistic, but I really like his emphasis on change."

As for McCain, some Republicans' comments reflected doubts among conservatives about his policy views.

Harry Duerr of Ambler, a 66-year-old retired municipal employee, said he is disillusioned with the spending habits of Republicans in Congress and sees President Bush as "ignorant," so he will cast a protest vote for libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul in the primary. In November, he said, "I'll vote for McCain," because "the Democrats are too far left."

Another retiree, 76-year-old Frank McMahon of Upper Dublin, has doubts about McCain, in part because of his age, but said he probably will vote for him in November if he picks someone like Mitt Romney as his running mate -- a younger and more conventional conservative.

Kathleen Birchler of Dresham, a retired office worker in an electronics plant, clings to her Republican identity even though she "can't stand" either Bush or Vice President Cheney. She has ruled out Obama, in part because he professed to be unaware of Wright's political views despite 20 years of attending his services.

But she -- along with many Democrats -- wishes "McCain weren't so strong for the war," and so she might vote for Clinton if she were to win the nomination.

Anyone who thinks most of these voters are settled in their choices does not hear what they're saying.


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