Politically Savvy Friends

Monday, November 3, 2008

Just One Day to Go

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Election Day! One day to go – can you imagine? This interminable, never-ending campaign for president is just about over. Millions have already cast their ballots in the 31 states that allow “early voting,” but most of us will go to the polls on Tuesday – and later that night we shall know who the 44th president of the United States will be. No, I do not believe the vote-counting will drag on to December, and, no, this will not be another 1888 or 2000 where the winner of the popular vote loses the electoral college. Thankfully, this election will produce a clear-cut winner, one way or the other.

So, in these last minutes of Campaign ’08, let me offer some final thoughts to my politically savvy friends along with some observations of sorts. Since my last PSF a week ago, I had the chance to do one-on-one interviews with Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and a satellite interview with Joe Biden. John McCain is back in Pittsburgh this morning (Monday), but so far no word on whether he will chat with me. (I’ve talked to him twice this fall). While I am aggressive in seeking out these interviews – and scrupulously fair to all candidates – I know the reason they talk to me has very little to do with me and a great deal to do with the importance of western Pennsylvania in this campaign. Never has a region been so eagerly sought by candidates enroute to the White House! Read on for more.


Why Pennsylvania is So Important:

With the magic number of electoral votes being 270, RealClearPolitics now puts 238“solid” electoral votes in Obama’s column with 118 solid votes for McCain. Four states are leaning to Obama: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), and Pennsylvania (21). If he wins the first three, but not Pennsylvania, he does not hit the magic 270. Could it really all come down to Pennsylvania? John McCain & Sarah Palin seem to think so. They have invested an incredible amount of time and resources throughout this state, and the latest SurveyUSA poll out on Sunday shows they have made some inroads: a 12-point lead for Obama last week is down to 7 points this week.

But Obama does have other options. He could become the first Democratic president since Harry Truman in 1948 to win the White House without PA. You see, RealClearPolitics now has an unbelievable 128 electoral votes still up for grabs, including Florida (27 electoral votes), Ohio (20), North Carolina (15), Georgia (15), Virginia (13), Missouri (11), Indiana (11), Arizona (10), Montana (3), and North Dakota (3). Obama can clinch the presidency with a win in Florida and Ohio without Pennsylvania.

The numbers are much more difficult for McCain. He must win all the toss-up states and then take Pennsylvania. Since Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to carry PA back in 1860, only two Republicans have made it to the White House without the Keystone State: Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2000 & 2004. If McCain loses Pennsylvania, it’s hard to see how he wins the presidency.

The Battle for Pennsylvania:

McCain and his strategists know the history lesson, which explains why he and Palin have been campaigning non-stop in this commonwealth. Since the end of the GOP Convention, McCain has made 17 campaign stops throughout the commonwealth, including one today (Monday) in Pittsburgh. For her part, Palin has made 23 campaign visits, including last Friday’s stops in Latrobe and York. That’s a lot of love from two Republicans for a state that has a million more Democrats than Republicans!

While the McCain-Palin events are smaller in crowd size than Obama-Biden, the supporters can be just as enthusiastic. This past week, it was all about Joe the Plumber, spreading the wealth, socialism, higher taxes – familiar messages on the GOP trail. And both candidates insisted that Pennsylvania was going to surprise a lot of folks on Tuesday. As I’ve opined before in earlier PSFs, PA is winnable for the Republicans if – and it’s a big if – things break for them. What are those things? First, a low turn-out in Philadelphia and a margin of victory for Obama that is under 400,000 votes in the city. Second, a break-even in the Philly suburbs, where both John Kerry & Al Gore beat George W. Bush. Third, a win or break-even in Northeast PA. Fourth, a solid victory over Obama in the center part of the state, including Democratic areas that stretch from Johnstown to York to Lancaster to Reading. Fifth, a loss in Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) of under 80,000 votes – Kerry won here by 97,000. And, finally, a big GOP win in Westmoreland County (by more than 30,000 votes) and consistent wins in all the conservative-voting Democratic counties that surround Pittsburgh and swing north to Erie. Under this scenario, McCain could eke out a victory in PA.

Palin Hits Latrobe:

Dressed in jeans, a Republican “cloth” coat (anyone remember Nixon’s speech?), and a orange Halloween scarf, Sarah Palin hit the make-shift stage (festooned with pumpkins on bales of hay) at a hangar at the small Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe (Westmoreland County) on Friday. About 2,500 supporters welcomed her on a frigid cold morning. She was accompanied by former Gov. Tom Ridge and another western PA football Hall of Famer – Coach Mike Ditka. Ditka who told the audience he was both a Republican and a conservative, introduced Palin. Pittsburgh football fans know that Ditka, born in Carnegie and raised in Aliquippa, was a local high school player before joining the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. The rest is history. Palin’s speech was not much different than the one she delivered in Beaver County a week earlier. It didn’t have to be – her supporters love her and she gets cheers just for showing up. Anybody think “Palin in 2012”?

This was my first chance to meet the Alaskan governor in person, and I admit I like her. She’s warm, down-to-earth, and (yes, guys) easy to look at! She answered my questions without hesitation – which, admittedly, were not tough ones – and was friendly and funny. And, yes, she talks just like Tina Fey, dropping her “g’s” as in fishin’ and huntin’ and the like. Is she qualified to be Vice President or President? Well, that’s a question for you to answer. I talked to her about Ditka’s endorsement, whether she thought western PA was like Alaska, and her iconic political role. She thought it was bizarre that people were dressing up as her for Halloween, but cracked that she was going out as Tina Fey. In her speech, she called on “Casey Democrats” to vote for McCain, so I asked her who those Casey Democrats were. I also gave her the chance to tell me how she would have run the campaign differently if she was in charged. No surprise, she ducked the question. You can watch the full uncut interview here: http://kdka.com/video/?id=48238@kdka.dayport.com.

In my view, the McCain campaign did a disservice to Palin when they hid her from the local media in the early fall. She does just fine, and by refusing to let her talk, they only created the impression that she was too dumb to answer questions and needed to be protected in some way. Moreover, I tend to think that local media are more fair than the national media, or at least less likely to have an axe to grind. Palin has been a great asset to McCain in exciting the Christian evangelical base, but it’s also true that she has hurt McCain among plenty of other voters, particularly some suburban women. We’ll know Tuesday night whether Palin helped more than she hurt.

Obama Hits the ‘Burgh:

Pittsburgh supporters of Barack Obama are nothing if not passionate about their candidate. At 7 am on a very cold day last Monday (Oct. 27), they started to line up to get into the Mellon Arena – home of the Pittsburgh Penguins – when the doors were not going to open until 3 pm and the candidate wouldn’t speak until 5:30 pm. This was Obama’s last visit to western PA, and at least 16,000 (a near capacity crowd) showed up to hear his “closing speech.” He brought out the typical political entourage: Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato, and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. But the introduction was reserved for a man whose popularity exceeds all the politicians combined: Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney is one of the nicest guys around, and his early endorsement of Obama last spring has had an impact. [A couple weeks ago, when Michelle Obama was in Pittsburgh, she stopped by the Rooney home on the Northside for a private fundraiser]. The crowd clearly loved it all, and I saw more than a few terrible towels being swirled around, albeit this came the day after the beloved Steelers fell to the Giants.

Before the end of Obama’s remarks, I had the chance to go back stage where I would interview Obama right after his speech. While I always enjoy interviewing the candidates, it’s a special treat to chat with some of the campaign operatives. I have talked to David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, on several occasions, and this time we had a bit more time together as Obama worked the rope line before exiting the Arena. I consider these conversations very much off-the-record, although I doubt Axelrod told me anything he hasn’t told others publicly. I like Axelrod, not only because he is a former political reporter (so he understands what it likes to be on this side of the camera), but because he is a soft-spoken, intelligent man who does not rant or rage or spin his words. In this business, that’s often rare.

Following his rousing reception, Obama was obviously revved up, if understandably a little bit tired. When I interviewed him behind a barn in Ohio in September, we had more time for chit-chat before the interview. This time it was pretty much all business. As the first reporter to talk to him since the story broke shortly before his Pittsburgh speech about those Nazi skinheads in Tennessee plotting an assassination, I had to ask him about that news item – but my general rule is to keep things Pennsylvania-focused and that’s what I did. I asked Obama about his reception in Pittsburgh, the state of the contest, the impact of racism, the skinheads, and his own safety – all in the mere two minutes I was allotted! You can check it out here: http://kdka.com/video/?id=48006@kdka.dayport.com.

While this was the Obama’s last visit to the region, both President Clinton and Senator Clinton were dispatched here for the late campaign hours. President Clinton spoke at Washington & Jefferson College on Thursday, while Senator Clinton is returning here today (Monday) after being here just a week ago Friday. Given the support the Clintons have always received in this region, it’s probably smart politics.


Did you miss Saturday Night Live this weekend? Check out John McCain’s great performance with Tina Fey right here: http://www.nbc.com/Saturday_Night_Live/video/clips/mccain-qvc-open/805381/

For you “Irish rednecks” in Pennsylvania, check out this tune that acclaims Obama’s Irish ancestry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EADUQWKoVek

And for those who (like me) love the musical Les Miserables, enjoy this parody of the Obama’s campaign last day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3ijYVyhnn0


Statewide Battles Unchanged:

Last week, I reviewed the three major statewide contests on the ballot tomorrow. For attorney general: incumbent Republican Tom Corbett versus Democrat John Morganelli; for state auditor general, incumbent Democrat Jack Wagner versus Republican Chet Beiler; for state treasurer, Republican Tom Ellis versus Democrat Rob McCord. The odds favor Corbett, Wagner, and McCord, but clearly Corbett is worried that a Democratic tide in PA could sink his Republican ship. He has assailed Morganelli on television and in direct mailers, although the Northampton district attorney has fought back. Voters in this state often “split” their tickets on Election Day, and my gut still gives it to Corbett. The appearance of a partisan, one-sided attack on House Democrats over “Bonusgate” – wherein both parties allegedly paid out legislative bonuses with taxpayer dollars for political campaign work done by legislative aides in the House and Senate – has hurt Corbett. But whether it’s enough to sink the political fortunes of this visible attorney general seems doubtful. I think it would take a Democratic tsunami for Morganelli to win.

PA Congressional Races Reviewed:

Most pundits think the four Democratic freshmen elected in 2006 will be returned to Congress tomorrow: U.S. Reps. Jason Altmire (4th CD), Joe Sestak (7th CD), Patrick Murphy (8th CD), and Chris Carney (10th CD). The most interesting contest of the four is former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart’s comeback try against Altmire, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is so confident of Altmire’s victory that it has pulled out of the race. Nonetheless, Hart has a creative television ad (blowing up a house) that seek to blame Altmire and Nancy Pelosi for failing to take action in the current economic crisis. It’s a dramatic ad, but probably comes too late to affect the outcome. The Dems think Altmire could win by double digits.

If any Democratic incumbents are to fall tomorrow, the most likely is U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Nanticoke (11th CD). My impression from afar is that Hazelton mayor Lou Barletta, the Republican, has the 24-year incumbent Democrat on the ropes over a variety of issues, and that Kanjorski could be one of the few Democratic House incumbents to lose this year. Still, the district is Democratic and that could count for a lot in a Democratic year. And in a last-minute effort to help, President Bill Clinton will campaign for Kanjorski tonight (Monday) at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. Kanjorski can still win this, but Barletta could pull an upset.

Most of the attention over the last week has been on U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown (12th CD). Murtha’s opponent is William Russell, a retired lieutenant colonel who recently moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia to take on Murtha. Nobody thought Murtha was in trouble a month ago – then Murtha put his foot in his mouth with comments about racism in western PA. Although he has apologized, Russell has hammered Murtha in TV ads on the “insult.” This week, Murtha responded with a blitzkrieg of his own, attacking Russell by name as a carpetbagger and highlighting his own success at bringing millions of dollars to western PA. And the DCCC has rushed in to help Murtha. Later today, President Clinton will campaign for Murtha. Both Russell and Murtha are social conservatives – Murtha is pro-life and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association – but Russell has attacked Murtha for being the king of earmarks, something Murtha is proud of. The question for voters in the 12th CD is whether they are so unhappy over Murtha’s mouth that they are willing to toss him out with all his seniority and the money it brings this region. It may be close, but I think Murtha can pull this out.

The DCCC is salivating over the 3rd CD where incumbent U.S. Rep. Phil English, an Erie Republican, may lose to Kathy Dahlkemper, an Erie Democrat. English is a reasonably moderate Republican – he touts a support record of 50% for George W. Bush last year – but Dahlkemper has gone after English on trade, tax, and economic issues. The 3rd CD stretches from Erie south into some outlying counties just north of Pittsburgh: Armstrong, Butler, and Venango Counties. Both English and Dahlkemper think it may come down to these Pittsburgh-oriented counties, so the Pittsburgh media market has been flooded with television ads, mostly DCCC ads attacking English. The last time English had a close race, it was the Republican-voting Butler County that bailed him out. If it’s really close, that could happen again.

Steve O’Donnell, a Monroeville Democrat, has been attacked relentlessly by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), an Upper St. Clair Republican, in television ads this past week. Citing articles from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Murphy says O’Donnell essentially ran a non-profit mental health group into bankruptcy, rewarding himself and his family in the process. O’Donnell denies the charges, but does not have the resources to defend himself on TV. In an interview with me this week, O’Donnell said one shot in the TV ad where O’Donnell raises his hand up in front of a camera – just like most criminal defendants do when confronted by TV news cameras – is a fake. He was never the subject of a TV news story, but rather raised his hand to protect himself when one of Murphy’s people shoved a camera in his face. Murphy’s campaign has released some raw video tape, suggesting O’Donnell actually approached the camera. Whatever the truth really is, the real question is why is an incumbent congressman engaged in what some think is political overkill when he ought to be a safe bet for reelection? Two years ago, Murphy won over an unknown Democrat by 16 points. Sure, the 18th CD has 70,000 more Dems than Republicans, but the hard-working Murphy has attracted Democratic, and labor, support over the years. So is 2008 different? Well, again, unless Dems do something this year they haven’t done before, Murphy should win another double-digit victory.

A Pet Peeve – It’s Democratic Party, not Democrat Party:

A number of years ago, I was assailed by both pro-life and pro-choice folks because I refused to accept their characterization of their opponents. Pro-lifers want me to call their opponents pro-abortion, while pro-choice people want me to call their opponents anti-choice. My rule is fairly simple: I will call you whatever you want, but you can’t impose a name on others. The official names of our two major parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Over the last decade or so, some narrow-minded Republicans and their allies in the media have tried, unilaterally, to change the name of the Democratic Party to the Democrat Party. They have no right to do that, any more than Democrats can rename their opponents as the Repub Party. When you hear someone do that, it tells you a lot about their political idealogy.

Congrats to Luke & Erin:

Finally, I’m sure all my politically savvy friends join me in congratulating Pittsburgh’s 28-year old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, and his wife Erin on the birth of their first child, son Cooper, on Friday. It’s a great reminder that amidst all the politics some things are more important – our families are really the reason that we need to elect quality individuals to public office. Little Cooper Ravenstahl cannot cast a vote until 2026, but his parents can – and you can – and it will never hurt us to think about which of the many candidates on the ballot can advance the interests of all our families in this state and nation.

This is obviously my last PSF before America votes on Tuesday. Over the next few days, I welcome your accounts of what is happening – and your own post-election analysis. I’ll share my thoughts on what happened at the end of the week. In the meantime, enjoy this most important aspect of American democracy – the right to vote in and vote out our government leaders. Good luck!

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