Politically Savvy Friends

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just One Week to Go

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Greetings from a “battleground state” with just over one week to go! Admittedly, if you are in a state where the Obama and McCain political ads have dominated the airwaves – to say nothing of all those “independent” ads – you can’t wait for all this to end. Forgot all those car ads – now all we see are campaign ads, most of which attack the other guy. My gut says that the old channel changer is in overdrive these days.

The truth is that 95% of folks know exactly what they are going to do on Election Day – even here in Pennsylvania – but that, of course, is the problem. It’s not yet 100% -- and in states like this one without “early” voting the real voting is yet to come. That means all this political warfare is directed at a very few number of voters, but voters who can make the difference in whether this is a landslide for Barack Obama or a narrow come-from-behind victory for John McCain.

So, my dear politically savvy friends, one week out, here are some thoughts of mine about both the presidential contest and some of the other political fights going on here in Pennsylvania. Whether you are a new savvy friend, or a familiar seasoned one, I welcome your personal off-the-record comments on how things are going in your neck of the woods.


My Overview:

If you listen to the national media, you might think this race is over. But even Obama’s closest confidantes know that there is no such thing as a done deal until all the votes are counted next Tuesday night. It’s true that Obama is leading McCain in enough states to reach that magic 270 electoral votes, but leading in the polls is quite different from leading at the polls. I certainly think the odds favor an Obama-Biden victory over McCain-Palin. After all, given all the unhappiness in the direction of this country – 85% say America is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest CBS/NYTimes poll – and the general repudiation of the current Republican in the White House – 23% job approval for President Bush in the latest Newsweek poll -- it’s surprising that any Republican candidate has kept it as close as McCain has done. That’s a personal testament to John McCain.

My friend Charlie Cook may have it right when he says that a lot of folks are just so unhappy about the way things are going they feel they have nothing to lose by giving Obama and the Democrats a chance to govern. McCain keeps trying to tell people how they might lose with Obama, but I think a lot of folks have tuned him out. While the latest “Joe the Plumber” riff wins lots of cheers at GOP rallies, it’s not resonating enough to be a deal-changer. In fact, the whole notion that Obama wants to “spread the wealth” hardly seems ominous, since most poor and middle class Americans have seen their own wealth disappear while the wealthier keep getting richer. Indeed, most middle class families – that’s most of my PSFers – have not seen their incomes rise as rapidly over the last decade as those who make the really big bucks and, lately, most middle income families have lost ground because of inflation.

So if this election really comes down to the economy, it’s hard to imagine the Democrats losing. But, again, a week can be a lifetime in politics, and we all know that a national security crisis or some other unpredictable event can change the dynamic dramatically.

Is Pennsylvania Up for Grabs?

The last time a Democrat won the White House without Pennsylvania was back in 1948 when Harry S. Truman lost the state but won the presidency. It is conceivable for Obama to lose PA and still win, but this state’s 21 electoral votes make it a coveted prize. In the last week, every poll puts Obama ahead of McCain, often by 10 points, but both John McCain and Sarah Palin have been campaigning all over PA like this is their last stand. Last week, both were in the Pittsburgh area within three days of each other. Do they know something the pollsters don’t know? In contrast, Obama has spent most of his PA campaign time back east. He makes his first public return to western PA since August 29 on Monday (today) at the Mellon Arena.

In some ways, it’s not hard to see why Obama and Biden campaign in eastern PA so much. If they can “run the numbers” in Philadelphia and its suburbs and sweep the area around Joe Biden’s “hometown” of Scranton, the lead becomes difficult for McCain to overcome elsewhere in the state. But if McCain can hold his own in the Philly suburbs and in the northeast, then victory in PA comes down to western PA. And most of the polls I’ve seen show this part of PA very much “up for grabs.”


So What’s Happening in Western PA?

As I have suggested in earlier PSFs, Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) is almost certainly going to vote for Obama. Latest registration figures show approximately 586,000 Democrats to 254,000 Republicans and 101,000 independents. John Kerry beat George Bush here by 97,000 votes, a margin that Obama could exceed, especially if all the new registrants show up to vote.

Speaking of new voters, here’s an interesting statistic from a county that is often compared to Miama-Dade for the older age of its residents. The number of registered voters under age 25 has now surpassed 100,000 in Allegheny County, up to 100,162. Of course, voters 75+ still exceed that number here at 119,487. Yeah, that’s right – registered voters 75+ still outnumber those under 25, and we all know the older folks vote! Looking a bit closer, however, voters under 35 in Allegheny County now exceed those 65 and older: 261,887 youngsters to 206,817 oldsters. If Obama can turn out the youngsters, anything is possible.

It looks better for McCain outside Allegheny County. While Democrats have a 49,000 voter registration advantage in Westmoreland County, nobody thinks Obama will beat McCain there. Bush beat Kerry there by 22,000 votes. Local Dems blame Richard Mellon Scaife and his Tribune Review newspaper. I think that’s unfair. The editorially conservative newspaper has some outstanding local reporters and has been fair in its coverage of the presidential race, as far as I can see. A more accurate explanation is that Democrats in Westmoreland County are simply more conservative, both economically and socially, than Obama. Rather than blame a local newspaper, Dems would be smarter to focus on issues that might attract Democrats to their ticket.

It’s also true that Christian evangelicals are an important segment of many western PA counties. While pundits often speak of this important base within the Republican Party, there are plenty of Democrats who are religious conservatives, too. It helps explain why Bush only lost Washington County by 552 votes in 2004 when the county’s Dems outnumber Republicans by 40,000 – or why in Beaver County where Dems have a 34,000 registration edge, Kerry won by only 2,200 votes. When Palin held a rally at the Beaver Area High School stadium last week, I saw many signs and stickers identifying with her anti-abortion views and, yes, I talked to Democrats in the crowd.

McCain Volunteer Hoax:

If you google the above words, you’ll get more than you want about the bizarre story from this region last week wherein a 20-year old white female McCain volunteer from Texas concocted a story out of whole cloth about being mugged by a black male in a Pittsburgh neighborhood who etched a reverse “B” in her face because she had a McCain bumper sticker on her car. The story turned out to be completely bogus, but that didn’t stop the Drudge Report from “teasing” it or the local McCain campaign from passing along the details to local news outlets. As far as I can tell, local news people acted professionally, obtaining the police report filed by this young woman, reporting its bogus contents, along with statements from the McCain campaign and reaction from the Obama campaign. Once the facts were known, the hoax was first reported by KDKA-TV and other local media, and I daresay the hoax got a whole lot more news coverage than the initial story did. While there may be some unanswered questions to some in the blogosphere, both local campaigns say they want to move beyond this sad story of a very troubled young woman who will face criminal charges for filing a false police report.

Is Pennsylvania a Racist State?

The notion that PA is full of racist rednecks was not helped by U.S. Rep. John Murtha’s recent assertion that this region is a racist one [see below]. But to suggest that somehow this area has more racists than other parts of the state – or, indeed, that PA is more racist than Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York (the states that surround us) is ludicrous. But make no mistake: race will play a role for some voters next Tuesday. Murtha suggested it may be more a problem with his generation – he’s 76 and I suppose he should know – than it is with my Babyboom generation or with the younger folks. My gut says he may be right on that point, but, again, it’s wrong to generalize, since we all know racists at every age level. The more important question, politically, is how large is the racist vote?

I don’t know how we can measure this even after the election, particularly since people often lie to pollsters. There are plenty of white Democrats who oppose Obama on issues important to them – abortion, guns, taxes, military – and to suggest they would have voted for a white Obama is crazy. Obviously, voting for McCain does not make you a racist, so you can’t draw a judgment on a vote total.

For all the talk about race, I hope that however the vote turns out in Pennsylvania and around the country, the one thing we can say is that race did not play a decisive role in the outcome. And, by the way, let’s address the canard that black folks are racist if and when they vote for Obama. First, that’s only true if they never vote for a white candidate. History suggests otherwise: African Americans have been one of the most dependable constituencies for white Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt. This time, the Democrat happens to be black (or at least half black). Second, every ethnic, religious, and now racial group tends to “vote for its own” when its candidate is a first-time history-maker. It’s hard to find a Catholic, for example, who did not vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. By the time John Kerry, also a Catholic, was the standard-bearer 44 years later, that kind of religious allegiance had waned. Finally, there’s no real evidence that blacks are voting for Obama solely because he’s black any more than there is evidence that whites are voting against Obama solely because of race.

Besides the presidential race, Pennsylvanians will elect three statewide officials, 19 members of Congress, 203 members of the state House, and 25 (or one-half) of the state Senate. For those interested in these races, read on.

Attorney General Race May Be Closer Than Thought:

It’s hard to imagine anyone defeating Tom Corbett, the Republican attorney general from suburban Pittsburgh, losing reelection for a second four-year term. Corbett is a likeable, generally moderate Republican, who has strong roots in the G.O.P. He got his first position – US Attorney for Western PA – by heading up the 1988 campaign in this region for George H.W. Bush. After he was ousted by President Clinton, he was named by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1995 to fill out the term of the resigned and convicted Ernie Preate. To get confirmed, Corbett had to promise not to run for the open seat in 1996. That opened the way for another Pittsburgh suburban Republican, Mike Fisher, who narrowly election to a job that only Republicans have held since it became an elected statewide office in 1980. With Fisher term-limited, Corbett got his chance in 2004, although he had a very contentious primary against Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor that still has scars. He barely won the general election against Philadelphia attorney Jim Eisenhower (a distant Democratic cousin of the late Republican president), defeating the Democrat by 109,000 votes out of just over 5.4 million votes cast.
Fast forward to today. Corbett is being challenged by John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northampton County (the greater Bethelehem-Easton area). Corbett is running on a record that includes an aggressive attack on sexual predators on the internet, along with his role in charging Democratic legislators and staff people involved in “bonusgate” – shorthand for legislative leaders using tax dollars to give out big bonuses to staff people who engaged in campaign work for their party. Morganelli, who has 17 years as a criminal prosecutor and styles himself a pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-death penalty conservative Democrat, asserts that Corbett has botched the investigation, first, by not appointing an independent prosecutor who would go after wrong-doing in both political parties, and, second, by giving the Republicans time essentially to clean the books for any subsequent charges that Corbett has promised might come after his reelection. See my KDKA-TV interview with Morganelli at http://kdka.com/video/?id=47592@kdka.dayport.com for the specifics.

Now Corbett has responded with a solid television ad campaign across the commonwealth, and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks Morganelli will win except Morganelli. But Morganelli is also on television, at least in this region where nobody knows him, but Corbett has out-fundraised him, $3.3 million to $1.3 million. When Fisher was reelected in 2000, he won by 504,000 votes; but the reelections of both LeRoy Zimmerman in 1984 and Ernie Preate in 1992 were much closer, within 2% of the total vote. Corbett wants a big win next Tuesday to establish himself as the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor in 2010. He can do that, but it’s just as possible, particularly given the Democratic voter registration advantage, that Morganelli keeps it close. Stay tuned.

Jack Wagner Seems a Shoo-In for Auditor General:

Quickly now, can you name the Republican running against Democratic incumbent Auditor General Jack Wagner? Probably not, which is why Wagner, a former state senator and city council president from Pittsburgh, will likely be reelected state auditor general next Tuesday. Wagner’s opponent is Chet Beiler, a Lancaster County Republican and local businessman who built a local gazebo business into one of the nation’s largest gazebo retailers. Beiler says his business experience is exactly what the state needs to audit its accounts, but he has raised only $475,000 to spread that message statewide, while the better-known Wagner has over a million bucks. Like Corbett, Wagner wants a big win as a set-up for 2010. His name is frequently on the short-list for either governor (an open seat coveted by many) or U.S. senator (against U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who has every intention of seeking another 6-year term).

State Treasurer Office Up For Grabs:

When U.S. Sen. Bob Casey became a senator, he left vacant the office of state treasurer. This year, two newcomers to statewide politics are on the ballot – Democrat Rob McCord versus Republican Tom Ellis. Both men come from the Philadelphia suburbs and generally unknown. McCord ran a somewhat visible race for the Democratic nomination last spring, which might give him a leg up, but what really helps him is his bankroll. A venture capitalist, McCord has pumped at least $1.4 million of his own money into this race. Ellis, a former Montgomery County commissioner and bond finance lawyer, has raised about $360,000. At a time when the stock market is crashing, you might assume the candidates for this office would be getting more public attention. After all, the state treasurer manages about $100 billion in state monies (well, who knows exactly what it’s worth these days) and signs off on about 23 million checks from the state treasury each year. But this race has been about as invisible as the one for auditor general. That’s probably good news for McCord, who seems to have all the advantages in this contest.

PA Congressional Battles:

Pennsylvania was one of the key states that gave Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 2006. Five Republican incumbents were ousted – U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Reps. Melissa Hart (4th CD), Curt Weldon (7th CD), Mike Fitzpatrick (8th CD), and Don Sherwood (10th CD) – the Democratic winners were Bob Casey and Jason Altmire, Joe Sestack, Patrick Murphy, and Chris Carney. Each of these incumbents look like winners next Tuesday, although the Republicans are not letting it go without a battle. Hart, for example, has engaged Altmire in a feisty rematch, and Carney’s district is so Republican it requires Carney to garner GOP votes (which he has done) against his challenger, Chris Hackett.

The more interesting races involve other incumbents in other districts. U.S. Rep. Phil English (3rd CD), an Erie Republican first elected in 1994, is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie. Some polls actually have her in the lead right now, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is pumping money into her race. The district stretches from Erie into Butler and Armstrong Counties just north of Pittsburgh. Dahlkemper is a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-business conservative Democrat, she says, but attacks English on economic and trade issues. You can check out my TV interview with her at http://kdka.com/video/?id=47842@kdka.dayport.com for more.

Could the dean of PA’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha (12th CD) of Johnstown, seriously be in electoral trouble? Well, it didn’t help that he stated publicly to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that “there is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” Now whether you believe Murtha was right or not, it’s not the kind of talk folks like to hear from their congressman. Murtha’s comments have been lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” and are now featured in TV ads by his GOP opponent, William Russell, a retired but still young lieutenant colonel who just recently moved to Pennsylvania. Russell is a true conservative on every imaginable issue, who accuses Murtha of “aiding and abetting the enemy” in Iraq for his comments about the U.S. Marines accused, and then cleared, of murdering Iraqis in Haditha. Here’s my TV interview with Russell at http://kdka.com/video/?id=46261@kdka.dayport.com and http://kdka.com/video/?id=46263@kdka.dayport.com. This weekend, Murtha’s campaign, which has largely ignored Russell, issued a statement accusing the Republican of calling himself a “West Point graduate” on his website when, in fact, Russell was dismissed from the academy for “academic failure.” It’s true Russell flunked out of West Point, but his campaign says the website posting is from another organization. Murtha is also accusing Russell of being a Virginia carpetbagger who just moved to PA to run against him. Beside the racism hullabaloo, Murtha, a social conservative, has pumped millions of dollars in “earmarks” into this western PA district that generally likes the money enabled only because of Murtha’s incredible clout on the Appropriations Committee. The question is whether the 76-year old’s comments on racism are enough to cost him an election. Two years ago, Murtha clobbered Washington County commissioner Diana Irey with 61% of the vote. This race will almost certainly be closer. Last week, the Susquehanna Poll, published by the Tribune Review, has Murtha ahead by just four points.

Without a doubt, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), a Republican from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, seems to luck out every election year. Despite a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic (by 75,000 voters at least), the moderate-to-conservative Republican wins every time. His campaign will tell you, with some accuracy, that this is because nobody works his district harder than Murphy. But it’s also true that the Democrats never quite seem to gel behind an opponent. This year, Monroeville businessman Steve O’Donnell won a contested primary (featuring the daughter of former state treasurer Barbara Hafer) to challenge Murphy. O’Donnell is trying, largely with a lawn sign, radio, and direct mail campaign – while Murphy is blitzing in all the typical ways, including lots of TV ads. Two years ago, against an opponent who did little, Murphy got 58% of the vote. This year, it will be closer, but O’Donnell is fighting the odds – and the failure of the DCCC to target this race says something. One sign that this race may be tighter than some think is that Murphy has now launched an attack ad on O’Donnell on television, surprising many since O’Donnell hasn’t been on TV. But unless the Democratic tide is overwhelming, most people still think Murphy will emerge the victor.

General Assembly Contests a Snoozer:

Gone are the days when an irate public in PA ousted some powerful incumbents because of their unrepentant vote for a massive pay increase. This year’s legislative battles have been largely overshadowed by the presidential race.

The state Senate will certainly remain in GOP control. In this region, some state senators are unopposed, while others have token opposition. PA Sen. John Pippy (37th SD), a Moon Township Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Amy Jude Schmotzer, a nurse from Whitehall who appears to have won the lawn sign battle. The district is marginally Democratic (83,000 Dems to 72,000 Republicans and 18,000 independents/other). Schmotzer has run a grassroots campaign, focusing on a reform agenda, while Pippy echoes the same. Although the Dems have no women from this region in the state Senate, it would take a perfect storm of Dems and independents voting for Schmotzer to upset Pippy.

The race to replace PA Sen. Bob Regola (39th SD), the Westmoreland County Republican who was acquitted of certain gun law violations that resulted in the death of a youngster next door, has been nasty, brutish, and long. Republican Kim Ward and Democrat Tony Bompiani have assaulted each other with accusations that each is a tax-raiser. Ward was just elected minority commissioner for Westmoreland County last year and stepped in for Regola when he suddenly resigned his nomination in August. Bompiani served as a Hempfield school director while Ward was a Hempfield supervisor, which means that both have votes to attack. The state campaign committees of both parties have invested in this battle, and I think the outcome is a toss-up.

PA Rep. Sean Ramaley was the odds-on favorite to replace PA Sen. Jerry Lavalle (47th SD) in this heavily Democratic mostly Beaver County senate district, until Corbett charged Ramaley with doing campaign work while on former state Rep. Mike Veon’s legislative payroll way back when. Democrats think these charges were trumped up, but Ramaley had little choice to step down as the party nominee. That allowed Jason Petrella, who lost in the primary to Ramaley, to get the nod from the executive committee of the Democratic Party in Harrisburg. But their choice of Petrella was at odds with a majority of local committee people in Beaver County who preferred county commissioner Joe Spanik for the nod, while the Beaver-Lawrence Labor Council wanted Bob Grotevant, former aide to Bob Casey. Now a divided Democratic Party is hoping Petrella can withstand attack from a united Republican effort behind their nominee, Elder Vogel. This seat should never go Republican, but it just might this year.

Finally, the one House battle everyone is watching in this region is the Republican effort to unseat the House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (50th HD). Two years ago, DeWeese beat Republican Greg Hopkins by 1,039 votes. This year, Hopkins is back, but the situation is slightly different. First, DeWeese’s former chief of staff has turned state’s evidence in the Bonusgate scandal, and lots of folks think he is fingering DeWeese in the process. Second, DeWeese is running scared, unlike last time, knocking on doors throughout the district even during the snow of last February. Third, DeWeese is going after Hopkins this time, accusing him of spending most of his time in California where Hopkins coaches an arena football team and replaying on TV comments Hopkins made about the district being on welfare. In short, if DeWeese loses this time, it won’t be without a fight from the Democrat.

Well, that wraps this PSF up for the moment. I may try to get another one out before the election. In the meantime, email me your thoughts and predictions. I love hearing from you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Three Weeks to Go & Counting

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Columbus Day! While the legal holiday is observed on a Monday, it was actually October 12, 1492, that Christopher Columbus saw the Bahamas. As we all know now, he was not the first European to “discover” America, but be careful to whom you say that. I am old enough to remember the late PA Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno, a wonderfully colorful man who went on a six-week tour of the nation to defend Columbus when Yale scholars declared that Leif Ericson had landed in America first. Ironically, Musmanno died on Columbus Day!

As many of you have reminded me, it’s been weeks since I’ve taken hand to keyboard to share my thoughts about this presidential race. It’s not like I’m vacationing! Between money (read the economy and Wall Street) and politics, my two principal news beats these days, my plate has been very full indeed. Since the presidential conventions, I’ve had two interviews with Barack Obama and one with John McCain and multiple interviews with surrogates. Obviously, both campaigns know how important Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio (just 30 miles west of me) are in this contest, and I can practically guarantee that if Pennsylvania and Ohio vote alike on November 4, that man will be president.

So, three weeks from decision day, where do we stand? Can you say President Obama? No, wait, could it be President McCain?

In this latest PSF, let me share my thoughts as someone who has spent 25 years in the political world – first, as a behind-the-scenes player, and, now, as an observer and commentator. As always, I welcome your off-the-record views. If you prefer not to get these occasional missives, there’s a button below to get off the list. Otherwise, dear Politically Savvy Friend, read on.


The Wall Street Mess -- Calling FDR:

A friend of mine asked me the other day where was Franklin D. Roosevelt when we needed him. The reference, of course, was to FDR’s famous call in his First Inaugural: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In the wake of the collapse of the Stock Market, causing most of us to lose more than one-third of our retirement funds, the absence of presidential leadership has been obvious.

It’s not that President Bush isn’t trying. It’s just that nobody cares what he says. His job approval ratings are in the mid-20s, the lowest of his presidency, and most financial analysts concluded that every time he spoke to the nation last week the market dropped some more.

Of course, presidents are not economists, finance wizards, or portfolio money managers. But they do have experts around them that are or should be. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may know a thing or two, but it’s not clear that even they know how to turn this market or the economy around. We begin this week with some hopeful signs. The stock market has resurged some 900+ points, and we are now seeing some concrete action out of Washington.

What surprised me most is that the Bush administration, having pushed so hard for its Wall Street rescue plan (or bailout, as detractors call it), seemed so unprepared to implement it, once Congress approved the bill a week ago. I would have thought the implementation plan would have been on the drawing board as the Congress debated its inevitable passage. The consequence has been delay, instead of action, and we all saw how Wall Street reacted to that. But concerted global action over this last weekend gives hope that maybe, just maybe, we can regain our footing.

Ultimately, the market will bottom out and eventually regain some, if not all, the losses over the next two years, if not sooner. At least that’s what the experts say. But all this focus on the economy demonstrates like nothing else how important it is to have a president with a team in place to make sure these meltdowns don’t occur and, if they do, to have a plan to minimize their impact on average working people. The Bush administration had neither.

It’s the Economy, Stupid:

When you’re hurting economically, it’s always about you. That’s a basic rule in politics. The candidate who can address your concerns or at least appears sympathetic to your plight will get your support. No surprise, every recent poll puts the economy and jobs as the #1 issue in this presidential race – 57% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Most of us have felt a lot of economic pain in recent months – unrestrained energy and food price increases, higher unemployment, devaluation of our homes, and now the evisceration of our 401-Ks and IRAs.

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), some 76 million of us, are particularly hurt by the latter, even if it’s just a paper loss (as long as we don’t cash in). My father’s generation had guaranteed company pensions, the so-called defined benefit plans, where the retired employee got a check every month from his employer for as long as he lived. Corporate America abandoned that approach when it became too expensive to sustain, and substituted a plan tied to the stock market wherein employees would deposit part of their own money (often matched partially by the employer) in a 401-K. Gone are those guaranteed monthly pension checks during retirement – except, of course, Social Security. Your retirement security depends on the return of your money set aside in investment accounts of your choosing and always subject to the vagaries of the stock market. That’s why everyone is so angry about what happened on Wall Street and the failure of our politicians to prevent it.

[Parenthetically, the only people left with those old-fashioned pension checks are public employees – teachers, government workers, and elected officials. We, the taxpayers, pay much of that monthly check, and I suspect that this last remnant of defined benefit will disappear in the years ahead, particularly if the typical American retiree appears to struggle while their neighbor who worked for the taxpayer enjoys a comfortable retirement.]

All this is to say that Americans hunger for a president who, not only understands all this, but appears willing to protect our jobs and restore jobs shipped overseas, raise our wages so we can (at least) stay even with inflation, provide affordable health care for all, and maintain our retirement security. It’s a very tall order.

McCain or Obama – Can Either One Make Life Better?

In their gut, most Americans don’t think either John McCain or Barack Obama can really do all that is necessary to make our lives better. Such is our cynicism that it’s easy to say that it doesn’t really matter who wins the White House, at least on the economy. But empathy is important and forced to choose, most Americans think Obama can address the economy better than McCain. In the latest Newsweek poll, those polled said Obama would do a better job on the economy and jobs than McCain by a 54% to 35% margin. Close to the same result in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 50% to 30%. We see similar results on health care, 56% to 30% for Obama in the Newsweek poll and 52% to 32% in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll.

McCain’s initial response to Wall Street even if taken out of contest (“The fundamentals of our economy are sound.”), coupled with his short-lived suspension of his campaign and refusal to debate Obama until Congress resolved its response to the crisis, made it easy for Obama to portray him as “out-of-touch” and a bit schizophrenic. That’s not fair to McCain, but nothing is ever fair in politics.

Fundamentally, what hurts McCain, in my view, is the general sense that, at least on the economy, he is really not much different than President Bush, someone traditionally hostile to government regulation of Wall Street, generally pro-business, and much more attuned to the interests of the wealthy than working Americans. In short, in difficult economic times, it’s tough to be a Republican politician because it’s so easy for Democrats to affix a label to you.

McCain Tries to Change the Theme Line:

Democrats don’t like it, but the McCain campaign did exactly what a smart candidate does when the number one issue in a campaign is against you – change the issue. Enter Bill Ayers, a ‘60s anti-war radical who cofounded the Weathermen underground movement and participated in the bombing of the NYC police headquarters, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon in the early 1970s, activities that occurred when Obama was a young kid, but actions that caused damage to public property but, fortunately, no death or injury. Not my kind of guy, that’s for sure.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s in Chicago. By this time, Ayers has become a prominent educator in that city, with multiple Masters degrees and a doctorate. Ayers, now a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, worked with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to write the so-called Chicago Annenberg Challenge, securing $49 million to reform the Chicago public schools over a five-year period. [Walter Annenberg, a Republican who died in 2002, was the billionaire Philadelphia publisher who was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom]. Obama was an original member of the board named to distribute that money. Besides their association in this project, Obama and Ayers were board members on the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty philanthropic group. It’s also a fact that Obama was in Ayers home when Ayers hosted an event at which then-Illinois state Sen. Alice Palmer presented Obama as her choice to succeed her in the 1996 Democratic primary.

What are we to make of all this? Obama has condemned Ayers’ illegal activity and calls McCain’s attempt to question his character through Ayers as “guilt by association.” He says he never “palled around” with Ayers, as McCain’s running-mate has charged. But McCain and his allies suggest that it’s just not believable that Obama was unaware of Ayers’ background and that he should have, if he had any decent character at all, completely excused himself from any association with this man. [This is similar, by the way, to the same argument made against Obama because of his long-time association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright whose anti-American, anti-white rhetoric was so inflammatory during the primary season].

PSF’ers can make their own judgment about what this says about Obama or McCain, for that matter. The political question is – has it worked to help McCain? Not yet, is my quick answer. Sure it’s “red meat” for the Republican base that wants McCain to attack Obama more vigorously, but the last-minute nature of the attack strikes many as “desperation” politics. The Fox News poll last week found that 61% of those polled said it made no difference to their vote. Even worse for McCain, some 51% said McCain was running a “negative” campaign for president, while only 21% said that of Obama.

So while McCain’s campaign may be right to change the issue from the economy to something else, a character assault on Obama because of his association (whatever it was) with Bill Ayers doesn’t seem to be working, at least not yet. Perhaps a better issue for McCain might be national security.

Sarah Palin (a/k/a Tina Fey) Becomes a Pop Culture Phenom:

Whether you think Gov. Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States, no one can doubt that she has taken America by storm – and thanks to Tina Fey – has singlehandedly restored Saturday Night Live to “must-watch” television.

I have not met Palin, so I don’t know what she is really like in person, but her spunky style has certainly hit a chord with many. But, let’s be honest, she has also become a figure of ridicule – and, at this stage of the campaign, it’s unclear whether the strong support she gets from some trumps the shake-of-the-head others give her. The most recent Newsweek poll gives her a 49% to 45% favorable rating.

Nonetheless, McCain’s choice of Palin, in my view, did exactly what was intended. It brought the Christian conservative evangelicals back on board the Republican ticket. McCain is a social conservative, but he’s never really been comfortable with the Falwell-Robertson ideology. Palin is not only comfortable with that ideology -- she lives her beliefs. That scares some Americans, but it was those Christian conservative voters who delivered the state of Ohio to George W. Bush in 2004 and nearly delivered Pennsylvania.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that either Joe Biden, who can quite legitimately point to his Pennsylvania roots, or Sarah Palin determines the outcome of this election. The race is between Obama and McCain, not their running-mates. The last vice presidential nominee to make a difference electorally was Lyndon Baines Johnson who delivered Texas – and the White House – to John F. Kennedy in 1960.


Up for Grabs:

As the economy got worse, Barack Obama’s poll numbers got better in Pennsylvania. His lead last week over John McCain ranged from 12% (Marist poll) to 15% (SurveyUSA). Mind you, in September, Obama’s lead was well within the margin of error, ranging from 1% (Strategic Vision) to 4% (Morning Call). So is the recent double-digit bump for Obama a temporary surge, or a predictor of the final outcome?

McCain obviously believes it’s temporary, as both he and Palin criss-cross much of the state and, almost as importantly, their TV ads – and those of groups that support them – continue to run at full strength. Obama hardly thinks PA is decided yet either, as he and Biden stump the state and bring in some heavy-weights like President and Senator Clinton to campaign in Scranton this past weekend.

In short, both candidates act like this state is up for grabs, regardless of the polls. Maybe they know something we don’t know!

The Key for Victory in PA:

James Carville once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. It was a clever line, but not exactly right. In many ways, PA is like 50 states – urban centers, manufacturing river towns, rural deer country, agricultural heartlands, areas that identify with the east coast and other parts that are clearly Midwestern in outlook. PA has liberal Republicans and very conservative Republicans, just as it has liberal Democrats and very conservative Democrats, and both parties have Christian evangelicals. And, yes, many Pennsylvanians have guns, religion, and a small-town ethos. Bottom line, this is a hard state to categorize.

But the keys to victory are not hard to discern.

Four years ago, John Kerry just barely defeated George Bush in PA by 2.5% of the vote, or 144,000 votes out of 4.7 million votes cast. The Democratic victory began in Philadelphia where Kerry racked up a record 412,000 vote margin over Bush. In August, Gov. Ed Rendell told me that he hoped Philadelphia would beat that record for Obama this November. The latest registration figures show it possible: Philadelphia has about 852,000 Democrats, 145,000 Republicans, and 93,000 independents (or other third-party members). Could Philadelphia give Obama a 500,000 vote lead? It would be astounding, but do-able. Last Saturday’s four-stop visit within Philadelphia by Obama was designed to do just that.

The suburbs of Philadelphia used to be a sure Republican thing. No more. In 2004, Kerry carried three of the four “bedroom” counties – Montgomery (by 46,000 votes), Bucks (by 9,000 votes), and Delaware (by 42,000 votes), losing only Chester County (by 10,000 for Bush). This year, McCain thinks he can do better by stressing his “maverick” independent style. What hampers that is the growth of Democrats in these counties. Montgomery County has now turned Democratic by 19,000 votes, with only 10,000 votes separating Republicans from Democrats in Bucks County and 23,000 in Delaware County.

But even if Obama scores big in Southeastern PA like Kerry did, that does not guarantee victory in the state. Pennsylvania has important concentration of voters in the Northeast (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Northwest (Erie), South Central East (Harrisburg/Lancaster/York), South Central West (Johnstown, Altoona, Somerset), and the voter-rich area surrounding Pittsburgh in Southwestern PA. And I’ve left out lots other important nooks and crannies of the state.

Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) is almost certainly going to vote for Obama. While not as lopsided as Philadelphia, it is overwhelmingly Democratic. Latest registration numbers have roughly 586,000 Dems here to 254,000 Republicans and 101,000 independents. In 2004, Kerry beat Bush here by 97,000 votes. In my view, Obama has the potential to win Allegheny County by more than 100,000 votes, depending on whether all the new registrants actually turn up to vote, but it is hardly a done deal.

It looks much better for McCain outside Pittsburgh and its immediate environs. Take Westmoreland County, where Democrats have a 49,000 voter registration edge over the Republicans: Four years ago, Bush beat Kerry in this county by 22,000 votes. In Washington County, Dems have a 40,000 registration edge today but Kerry only beat Bush by 552 votes. In Beaver County, Dems lead Republicans by 34,000 voters but Kerry only won by 2,200 votes. Take Lawrence County where Dems outnumber Republicans by 12,000 voters but Bush won by 551 votes. You get the picture.

The conservative Democrats in Southwestern PA can never be taken for granted by a Democratic candidate running statewide. Neither Obama nor McCain have campaigned in this region since late August – although Palin was here last Friday and Michelle Obama is expected on Thursday – but at some point the race will come down to regions west of the Susquehanna River. Both Gov. Ed Rendell and former Gov. Tom Ridge have certainly counseled their party nominees – western Pennsylvanians like retail politics, vote a higher percentage than back east, and are never predictable. In the end, while small in numbers, how Democratic counties like Beaver County and Washington County vote could well predict who wins the state of Pennsylvania.

The Role of Race in PA:

Finally, a word about race. I had a Democratic committeeman from this area come up to me a few months ago and bluntly tell me that he could never support Obama because he’s black. It’s abhorrent to me that anyone would vote for or against someone on the basis of race, gender, or religion, but we all know that it happens in every election. I have written about this in earlier PSFs. While most of us can point to stories from friends or relatives who say they know somebody who will never vote for Obama because of his race, it’s hard to measure the impact of this.

Last spring, Rendell observed that he felt in his race against an African American in Pennsylvania, the white candidate benefitted by as much as five to seven percentage points. He should know, not only as an astute politician but also as one who ran against an African American in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, a Republican. If Rendell is correct, then Obama needs a double-digit lead to win PA.

But I don’t know if Rendell is right, especially when it comes to Barack Obama and John McCain. It seems to me that there are so many other legitimate reasons to vote for one or against these candidates that race is consequential only for the true racists, which I hope is less than one percent of the PA electorate, not seven percent.

Still, there is a gnawing feeling that race will play a greater role in this election than anyone wants to admit. There is not much Obama can do about this, although his recent 60-second biographical ad featuring his white mother and white grandparents was a subliminal way to deal with the issue. My gut instinct is what worries some white voters is not Obama but other African Americans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (notice how they’ve disappeared this election season?) who appear to have made a career blaming whites for everything wrong in the black community. One white woman asked me the other day if I thought Obama would be beholden to those leaders if he won.

Obama deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of Jackson or Sharpton – just as John McCain deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of George W. Bush. But it’s the nature of politics to obfuscate rather than clarify. We won’t know the role of race in this contest until the votes are counted.

There is always much more that I can opine on, especially here in Pennsylvania. But let me save something for another PSF next week. I’m committed to doing at least one a week through and right after the election. As always, I welcome your comments – and hope to see some of you out on the campaign trail.