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In a Changing Corner of Pa., a Glimpse of Obama's Age Problem

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

LANCASTER, Pa. -- When Gene Rutherford, 65, tries to make sense of the meteoric rise of Barack Obama, and the rampant enthusiasm for him among younger Americans, he thinks of the local mall, where as director of operations he often deals with teenagers.

"Kids today have been given everything they want, and don't have to work for it. They have no respect for authority," said Rutherford, standing at the bar at the Elks lodge here. "They'll make remarks right to the face of the [mall] cops. I get to the point where I want to do something," he said, cocking a fist as if to threaten a punch. "But the police say we can't, that we just have to stand there." It makes him worry for the country. "I see it going the Roman way."

If the senator from Illinois is going to achieve his goal of bridging the nation's divides, he is going to have to overcome a generation gap with older voters unlike any such split a Democratic presidential nominee has faced in years.

Even as younger voters are showing signs of breaking with years of lackluster turnout to support him, Obama is facing singular resistance from voters over 65. That age group turns out at the highest rate on Election Day and is disproportionately represented in the swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania; Bill Clinton and Al Gore both relied on it in winning the Democrats' only popular-vote majorities of the past two decades.

With polls showing Obama dominating among those under 40 and running even among middle-aged voters, Republican John McCain's lead among those 65 and older is the main reason he remains close overall. His margin is largest among older white voters without a college education, accounting for much of Obama's problem with the white working class.

Obama has tried to compensate by proposing a tax cut for seniors, which was criticized by economists. But as Rutherford's comments suggest and surveys show, Obama's challenge goes deeper than a new proposal or two -- an approach that worked for Clinton against George H.W. Bush and Robert J. Dole.

Surveys and interviews suggest that older voters think McCain, who will turn 72 this month, comes far closer than Obama, 47, to sharing their values and outlook on the world and on the changes in the nation over the past half-century.

"The older people just don't see Obama in these glowing terms," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "For older voters, a lot of the reservations really have to do with this experience factor, while younger voters see in Obama something much closer to themselves."

The generational split is on display in Lancaster, a city of 55,000 in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, a once solidly Republican area that is growing more mixed with an influx of Hispanic immigrants and urban professionals.

Trying to sustain itself amid the city's changes is the local branch of the Elks Club, the 140-year-old fraternal organization, which like similar groups is losing members. Rutherford, who served two terms as his branch's "exalted leader," sees a link between falling membership -- from 1,200 a decade ago to 680 today -- and Obama's popularity among local youths.

"Kids want to think for themselves -- they don't care what Mom and Dad say," said Rutherford, a burly man with a Manhattan in his hand. "This was a Republican stronghold, but it's changing very quickly because it's 'Mom and Dad, you're Republican, so I ain't ever going to be one of them.' "

Rutherford's pessimism does not extend to his own four children, three of whom followed him and his father and grandfather in becoming Elks. He presumes that they lean Republican, as he does, though he votes Democratic now and then and wishes former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a Republican who supports abortion rights, were the GOP nominee.


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