By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- He hated the helplessness of watching John McCain's efforts from afar, so Joe White, 62, loaded up his trailer in South Carolina and drove here last weekend. He set up camp in a Wal-Mart parking lot, bought a map of State College and started knocking on strangers' doors -- 25 houses per hour, 10 hours each day.
On Tuesday morning, more than four days and 1,100 houses into his trip, White approached a rancher with a McCain sign in the front yard. Beverly Blood, 71, answered the door.
"You're here for John McCain?" Blood said. "I'm for him, too, but some people are saying it's not looking so good."
"Well," White said, "I'm one of those people who thinks it's not over until the fat lady sings."
During the last two weeks, thousands of volunteers such as White have flocked to Pennsylvania -- the land of last resort for McCain's campaign. Among staffers and volunteers working frantically in this state, the typical line of thought goes like this: If McCain can somehow score an upset in Pennsylvania, he will earn 21 electoral votes, compensate for potential losses in some traditionally Republican states and narrowly defeat Sen. Barack Obama for the presidency. On their T-shirts and hats, McCain volunteers reduce the strategy to a simple slogan: Twenty-one.
It's the promise of twenty-one that persuaded McCain's campaign to redirect so many of its efforts to Pennsylvania; that drew McCain and vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the state for eight rallies this week alone; that compelled McCain to confess to a crowd in Hershey, "We need to win in Pennsylvania on November the 4th."
Pennsylvania has not gone for a Republican candidate for president in 20 years, and several polls indicate Obama maintains a double-digit lead here. But, on an electoral map that looks increasingly grim for McCain in swing states such as Virginia, Colorado and Florida, advisers said they have reasons to hope in Pennsylvania. Obama lost badly to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in this state's primary, in part because he struggled to connect with white working-class voters. Because Pennsylvania does not allow early voting, McCain has more time to make his comeback.
For the strategy to work, McCain will have to woo unprecedented support from registered Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by more than 1.2 million. His campaign helped launch more than a dozen Democrats for McCain groups across the state, and it bused in Democratic volunteers from New Jersey and New York. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a top fundraiser for Clinton's campaign, will spend several days speaking to Democrats on McCain's behalf.
"I think Pennsylvania could be a big surprise to the conventional thought in the Democratic Party," Rothschild said. "Pennsylvania is a conservative Democratic state, and John McCain can win it. We are targeting independents and Democrats, and they're just not comfortable with Barack Obama's plan for America, because it's outside of the mainstream. This is the most important thing I've done in politics. The election could turn right here."
Obama's campaign has responded to McCain's efforts by fortifying its own operation in Pennsylvania. Obama held a rally Tuesday in Chester, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., visited four cities last week. Less than 16 hours after a Palin rally in State College on Tuesday night, Bill Clinton took the same stage and spoke on Obama's behalf.
"As unlikely as it is for them to succeed [in Pennsylvania], we've got to take that seriously, and we will," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.
Said McCain spokesman Peter Feldman: "Both campaigns see Pennsylvania as in play."
Which is why White, the South Carolina volunteer, decided to travel to this college town in central Pennsylvania last week. While driving through the state, he listened to a cycle of competing campaign commercials on radio stations and heard news broadcasts announcing one small-town presidential rally after the next. White had never volunteered for a presidential candidate before, but he thinks that McCain would make a better guardian of the country than Obama. "I think we'll be safer with him as commander in chief, and that's too important to mess with," White said.
He took a 10-day vacation from his small business as a medical supplier and signed up for a volunteer program called McCain's Mavericks. When he arrived in State College, he visited McCain's local office to procure a list of addresses for registered voters.
As he trudged through the snow, White drew enough cold stares to understand McCain's challenge. For the first time in 30 years, Centre County has more registered Democrats than Republicans -- the result of a 10,000-person registration drive for Obama at Penn State University. Among its 100,000 voters, Centre now has 5,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. White knocked on the doors of enough bitter conservatives to learn that "these kind of places are just getting more liberal."
But White also learned enough about politics in Pennsylvania to maintain his optimism. Even two of the state's most powerful Democrats -- Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Rep. John P. Murtha -- seemed to suggest McCain had a chance. Rendell told a reporter that, "the undecideds are most likely not going to go in Obama's direction." Murtha recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "there is no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area," a comment that has put his own reelection in jeopardy even though he apologized. A new Mason-Dixon poll this week showed Obama's lead in Pennsylvania at a tenuous 4 percent -- though other polls still show him with a larger margin.
"We're really ahead in this election, but we're not going to let anybody know until next Tuesday," White told one McCain supporter who answered the door. "You'd be surprised how many people I've already talked to around here who said they just won't vote for Obama. I'm telling you, there's a whole community of us."
The McCain believers showed up en masse Tuesday night on the Penn State campus, forming a 7,000-person line in the snow for a chance to attend a Palin rally in a student gymnasium. They came to see the potential vice president, but many supporters said they were more impressed by the crowd. Three thousand people crammed onto the floor, two levels of arena seats filled to capacity and hundreds of people waved McCain signs. It was a visual reinforcement of Republican support.
Alex Smith, a Penn State junior and the president of the College Republicans, stood shirtless in the upper deck, his chest painted with a purple "C" to help spell out "MAVERICK." He had been teased regularly for the last three months, an outsider on a campus dominated by Obama supporters. Now, he gestured at the crowd. "It feels good to be around like minds," he said.
Ken Pasch, a 55-year-old independent, helped direct traffic near the stage. He had "pinballed between Obama and McCain" before finally deciding to support McCain three weeks ago. "I think there's a chance McCain can take it," he said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."
Mitch Hagmaier, a 36-year-old Democrat, stood near the entrance and pointed out a handful of other Democrats he recognized in the crowd. A self-described "national security" voter, Hagmaier had decided to support McCain after Obama defeated Clinton in the Democratic primary. For the last three weeks, Hagmaier had volunteered in McCain's State College office six days each week, calling undecided voters from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m.
"If McCain can hit Pennsylvania, he has it made," Hagmaier said. "It's striking how many registered Democrats are here or working in the office. We're starting to get some momentum going our way. With Palin coming here, and this crowd, you can feel it starting to turn."
But after Palin spoke, the crowd exited the arena to a somber reminder of the difficult task ahead. More than two hundred Obama supporters stood across the street, handing out bumper stickers and waving signs. As the Palin crowd walked by, a few student Democrats held up a sign showing Obama's lead in the Pennsylvania polls, and began to taunt.
" Scoreboard," they chanted, over and over.