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Maybe Not 'Bitter,' But Aware of the Loss

In Western Pa., Witnessing a Steady Decline

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) responded to reports of his calling Middle Americans "bitter" by 'beating it to death.'Video by ABC News/National Constitution Center/WPVI-TV
[Pennsylvania demographics]
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

CHARLEROI, Pa. -- Sitting with friends over 74-cent cups of coffee at the McDonald's here, Bob and Michael Jeanmenne can see more than a few things that might affect their moods.

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The Monongahela River, which runs cleaner than when they were young (not a good sign); the trains, which rumble along the river but don't stop, since the station was replaced by a Rite Aid years ago; and the main drag, McKean Avenue, where the streetcar is long gone, half the storefronts are vacant and many others are on the verge of shuttering.

"You couldn't walk down one block without bumping into 30 people. Now you walk down three or four blocks at 8 at night and you won't run into anyone," said Michael Jeanmenne, 80.

Yes, the Jeanmenne brothers concede, they are somewhat "bitter," the word that Sen. Barack Obama used at a San Francisco fundraiser to describe small-town Pennsylvania, in a riff that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton seized on to cast him as elitist. The steel mill where Michael worked as a stenciler is slated to shut down this year; the GM parts manufacturer where Bob worked is also on its last legs. All eight of their children have left town. "There's an awful lot of resentment around here," said Bob Jeanmenne, 84.

And no, they do not agree with the rest of Obama's analysis: that voters in distressed towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment as a way to explain their frustration."

Yet they find it hard to get worked up about the comments -- as do other Pennsylvanians, judging by polls that so far show little damage from an episode Clinton has worked hard to exploit. Years of watching the decline of the town they have lived in since their family arrived from France in the 1920s has, they suggested, provided perspective that keeps them from getting caught up in 24-hour cable and Internet outrage.

Bob Jeanmenne almost always votes Republican (though he's a Democrat) and Michael almost always votes Democrat (he hasn't decided whom to support next week). But both doubt that Obama's remarks will affect the primary.

"He overstepped his statement, and didn't realize what he was saying. It was a Freudian slip -- he said what's in his mind," said Bob Jeanmenne. "But I don't think it will make much difference."

This town 30 miles south of Pittsburgh illustrates the challenge Obama faces with older, blue-collar Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt -- a weakness Clinton backers warn may yet hurt the Democrats if he is the nominee. Most Democrats interviewed here said they would vote for Clinton, citing her experience and their fondness for her husband's administration, as well as their unfamiliarity with Obama. Some said they will vote for Obama if he is the nominee; others weren't sure.

Yet while questioning elements of Obama's remarks, residents showed little personal offense. Some, including potential Clinton supporters, questioned her claim to be a grittier alternative to Obama, noting her personal wealth and her husband's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, blamed for job losses.

"She'd be okay, but he's more for the people," said Teena Papa, 39, a restaurant worker who appreciates Obama because he was raised by a single mother, which she is.

Most of all, residents noted the irony that -- after years of neglect -- they are having their innermost feelings argued over by presidential candidates and pundits, all because of a two-sentence gaffe.


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