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In This Forgotten Town, Obama Can Forget About It

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

McKEESPORT, Pa.

This town was bitter before bitter was fashionable.

The Monongahela River Valley lost its steel mills in the '80s and, a quarter-century later, this sad town in the heart of the Mon Valley still hasn't recovered. Its downtown is a collage of crumbling buildings, and its once-proud landmark, the 102-year-old People's Union Bank Building, has signs in the window:

"Bank Repo Sale.

Excellent Deal.

Eight stories.

Priced to sell!"

It is, in short, just the sort of place Barack Obama was talking about when he said he wasn't getting the support of blue-collar workers of the industrial heartland because they "cling" to guns and religion out of economic bitterness. It is also the place Obama chose to visit on Monday night, on the eve of Tuesday's primary -- and the reception here explains why Obama, the national front-runner, is expected to lose Pennsylvania.

"I don't care too much for Obama," Maria Norgren, the daughter and granddaughter of steelworkers, said in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle shopping center here, near the Obama rally.

"I don't even think he's American," added her husband, Edward, who lost his job when the steel mills closed and now mans the counter at the Puff Discount Tobacco and Lottery shop next to the Giant Eagle.

"His father's from Nigeria, right?" asked Maria, wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt.

Kenya, actually. But the point is the same: The Norgrens, who backed Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, will vote for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. And if Obama wins the nomination, these Democrats say they'll vote for Republican John McCain, even though they want an end to the war in Iraq, where their soldier-son is about to start his third tour.

If Hillary Clinton wins Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary -- and polls forecast that she will do just that -- it will be because of white, working-class voters like the Norgrens. Yet the blue-collar voters poised to keep Clinton's candidacy alive are also the reason she is losing the national race to Obama: Though still in charge here, they have lost control of the Democratic Party to the wealthy and better-educated.

Obama found himself confronting the divide again on Monday: While a crowd waited for him in a warm gymnasium in McKeesport, he was preparing for segments for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and Rachael Ray's show. The comedian and the foodie prevailed, and Obama arrived at the gym nearly two hours late.

"I'm so sorry we're late; I feel terrible, McKeesport," Obama said. The crowd didn't seem to mind -- but then, it wasn't a typical Mon Valley gathering. The venue -- a branch campus of Penn State -- played to Obama's base: a racially mixed throng of students blended with an older group of academics, professionals and arty types. A Lexus was parked prominently near the entrance. A young man set up a table to sell T-shirts and entertained those waiting in line with a rap: "Run and tell your mamas/We're voting for Obama."

When it was time for the audience to question the candidate, their topics weren't local misery but policy matters such as public transportation and tuition assistance.

Still, Obama began his talk with a nod to the local struggles, including recent job losses in the area and low wages. "The population has dropped off in the last few years, and people are working harder to get by and moving away for better jobs," he said, avoiding any mention of God, guns or bitterness. "I'm not telling you anything you don't know," he added.

He certainly wasn't. The average household in McKeesport earns less than $30,000 a year, barely half the U.S. average. Its population has shrunk and aged with the loss of the mills, and the average home here sells for a mere $45,000.

On the river bank, Andrew Carnegie's mills have fallen silent. The corrugated metal ones are rusting. An old brick one, from 1906, still says "National Tube Company." But the loss of industrial jobs here has turned downtown McKeesport into a place for repo lots and pawnshops ("Cash 'til Payday") and nonprofits caring for the elderly.

It's enough to make anybody bitter -- and some of that is directed at Obama. "I think he just wants to be president because he's black," said Tim Hetrick, smoking a cigarette as he waited for a bus among the crumbling structures of downtown McKeesport. A Democrat, he's thinking about voting for McCain in November.

The discontent is common among the valley's hard-luck residents. Outside the Penn State campus hosting the Obama event, Jim Obley, who lost his job at a mental-health center, set up a folding chair so he could wave Hillary Clinton signs at the Obama supporters. "He said most Pennsylvanians are bitter and they need religion and guns," protested Obley, wearing a necklace with a gold cross. "We're not about that."

The antipathy toward Obama isn't necessarily logical. Outside the Giant Eagle -- pronounced "jyn-igl" in the local accent -- Edward Norgren listed his reasons: Clinton's ad accusing Obama of taking oil-company money; Michelle Obama's suggestion that she hadn't been "proud" of her country; Obama's provocative former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And, of course, there was the "bitter" remark. "My dad taught me to hunt and I taught my son," he said.

"It's a racial component, too," Maria Norgren added. "A lot of black people are voting for him." And her older, white neighbors "won't vote for a woman or a black man."

Some might attribute that sentiment -- and the Norgrens' -- to bitterness. But Edward Norgren sees it differently. "I'm not bitter," he said. "I've moved on in my life." He just doesn't like Obama.

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