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Determined Steps in a Tough Slog

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By Kevin Merida and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 21, 2008

SCRANTON, Pa. -- Sometimes you don't know what you're up against until you're up against it.

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Barack Obama's campaign opened a downtown office here on March 15, just in time for the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. It was not a glorious day for Team Obama. Some of the green signs the campaign had trucked in by the thousands were burned during the parade, and campaign volunteers -- white volunteers -- were greeted with racial slurs. More episodes would follow, according to staffers and campaign surrogates.

Lackawanna County Commissioners Mike Washo and Corey O'Brien, who represent the Scranton area, received hate mail after they endorsed Obama. But it only made them more resolute, they said. "It was a very jarring response from a select group of people," said O'Brien. "Some of the ugliest parts of our society shined at those moments." But he added: "Things are certainly moving in the right direction. Running out of time here, but moving in the right direction."

A two-hour drive south off Interstate 476 will take you into the heart of Hillary Clinton's campaign struggles. There, in the City of Brotherly Love, the Clinton camp has found a limited supply of sisterly love. Despite the aggressive backing of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Gov. Ed Rendell (a former Philly mayor), Clinton's crew has run into an Obama juggernaut. He's got 10 offices in the city to her three, outspent her on television advertising 3 to 1 and drew the largest crowd of this campaign season -- 35,000 -- at an Independence Mall rally. All of which has left Clinton advisers like Nick Clemons blunt-spoken in their assessments of what will happen tomorrow when voters go to the polls. "Obama will win Philadelphia," said Clemons, adding, "Our goal is to cut into his margin."

The battles on the ground in Scranton and Philadelphia are two tales from the underdog narrative of American politics. Though worlds apart demographically and socially, both places represent distinct challenges to the candidacies of Obama and Clinton, respectively, and not just in Pennsylvania.

For Obama, he has had trouble in recent contests winning over working-class whites in towns and cities exactly like Scranton, once a vibrant iron and coal mining community that has lost nearly half its population since 1940. The median household income in the county is less than $38,000, below the state average. For the past two decades, Scranton has been renovating itself and its image, adding tourist attractions, an incubator center for start-up companies, downtown housing and celebrating its newfound glory as the fictional hub of the popular NBC sitcom "The Office." Clinton's roots here -- her father and grandfather lived in Scranton, she was baptized here, and the family built a vacation cottage on nearby Lake Winola -- has helped make this decidedly Clinton territory. Not so in Philadelphia, another in a long string of urban centers that have proved hard for Clinton to penetrate. Winning major cities has become her Achilles' heel, with the exceptions of Los Angeles and New York, both of which have sizable Hispanic populations that have been drawn to her candidacy. She also represents New York in the Senate. From Boston to Cleveland to Houston to Seattle, Obama has been able to outpoint Clinton with some combination of high African American turnout and allegiance from college students and upscale white professionals.

"This is what has been remarkable about their matchup," said G. Terry Madonna, the veteran Pennsylvania pollster who heads the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "They've been unable to win large numbers of voters from each person's demographics."

Not that they aren't trying.

Obama's Scranton Challenge

To run its headquarters in Scranton, the center of a five-county field operation in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign tapped 23-year-old Gillian Bergeron. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, she had volunteered for a Draft Obama group way back when and ended up working the South Carolina primary from an office in Charleston. She did well there, and then did well in Mobile, Ala., and then did well in Houston, and all of a sudden she was dispatched to Scranton as a regional field director in perhaps the toughest place in the state for Obama.

Who followed her? A tight-knit collective of other 20-somethings, who, like Bergeron, had never worked on campaigns before Obama's and thus did not feel constricted by conventional political practices. They were urged on by the campaign's state field director Jeremy Bird: "Listen, put up a hell of a fight." Battle for every vote, get as creative as you need to be. On Saturday night, they staged an indie rock concert in the back room of their headquarters. On Easter, they canvassed at tattoo parlors. They walked malls with wrestler Mick Foley, a.k.a. "Mankind," who proved to be hugely popular here.

Help sometimes came from unusual quarters. An iconoclastic Irish history buff, apparently aware of the predicament in Scranton, offered to drive from Florida and work Catholic churches. Scranton is heavily Catholic with a large Irish American population. Two days later, the history buff phoned campaign aide John Davis from nearby Wilkes-Barre, ready to get busy: "Can you give me the name of an Irish bar? I want to go talk to some people and have a pint." And then there was Sister Adrian Barrett, the nun known as the "Mother Teresa of Scranton," who enlisted the starting five of the local girls' high school basketball team to make phone calls for Obama.

The team Bergeron is leading -- five paid staff and several hundred volunteers -- is a long-hours, no-worry, no-fear bunch.


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