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Economy a Top Issue Ahead of Pennsylvania Primary

April 14, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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As the Pennsylvania primary draws near, Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are crisscrossing the Keystone State in a bid for voter support in a state where a complex mix of issues -- from the economy to religion -- ranks high for voters. Political analysts from across Pennsylvania preview the contest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The back-and-forth between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stretched into a fourth day today, incited by Obama’s recent comment that hard economic times have made some small-town, working-class voters “bitter” and that they “cling to guns and religion” as a result.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I can still remember the first time I saw a shuttered mill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a meeting of the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Pittsburgh this morning, Obama pointed to Clinton’s past support of free trade deals as evidence that she is the one out of touch with Pennsylvania’s blue-collared workers.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You can’t spend the better part of two decades campaigning for NAFTA and PNTR for China, and then come here to Pennsylvania and tell the workers that you’ve been with them all along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama also poked fun at Clinton’s visit to a bar in Crown Point, Indiana, over the weekend where she drank a shot of whisky and a beer.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Candidates, they just can’t do enough. They’ll promise you anything. They’ll give you a long list of proposals. They’ll even come around with TV crews in tow and throw back a shot and a beer.

But if those same candidates are taking millions of dollars in contributions from the PACs and the lobbyists, ask yourself: Who are they going to be toasting once the election is over?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton also spoke to the manufacturing group this morning and criticized Obama for not owning up to his statement about small-town workers.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Instead of looking at himself, he blamed them. He said that they “cling to religion and guns” and dislike people who are different from them.

Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that people don’t cling to religion; they value their faith. You don’t cling to guns; you enjoy hunting, or collecting, or sport-shooting.

I don’t think he really gets it, that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican John McCain took a turn, jumping into the fray today over Obama’s “bitter” comment, when asked about it at the Associated Press’s annual meeting in Washington.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the senator is an elitist?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Oh, I don’t know. I think those comments are elitist. I think that anybody who disparages people who are hard-working, honest, dedicated people who have cherished the Second Amendment, and the right to hunt, and the right to observe that, and their values, and their culture that they value, and that they’ve grown up with, and sometimes in the case of generations, and saying that’s because they’re unhappy with their economic conditions? I think that’s a fundamental contradiction of what I believe America is all about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just as it was today, much of the focus this weekend was squarely on the dustup between Clinton and Obama. Both candidates participated in the Compassion Forum held Sunday night at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where they discussed the role of faith in public life.

Clinton went first, although the initial question was not about her faith, but rather her criticism of Obama. She said his remarks were indicative of the problems the past two Democratic presidential nominees have had in running for office.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I do think it raises a lot of concerns, and we’ve seen that exhibited in the last several days by people here in Pennsylvania, in Indiana, where I was yesterday, and elsewhere, because it did seem so much in line with what often we are charged with. Someone goes to a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch, and, frankly, patronizing.

That has nothing to do with him being a good man or a man of faith. We had two very good men and men of faith run for president in 2000 and 2004. But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or, frankly, respect their ways of life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama responded by saying his words may have been clumsy, but his intentions were good.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: What I was saying is that, when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they’ve got family, they’ve got their faith, they’ve got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren’t bad things; that’s what they have left.

And, unfortunately, what people have become bitter about — and oftentimes have told me about, as I traveled through not just Pennsylvania, but I was referring to states all across the Midwest, including my home state — is any confidence that the government is listening to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new poll in Pennsylvania taken just before this latest controversy shows Obama had narrowed Clinton’s once-sizeable lead to a virtual dead heat. Keystone State voters cast their ballots one week from tomorrow.

A politically diverse state

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The voters in southwestern Pennsylvania, a good way to look at them is to think of them as almost like Midwestern voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how the Pennsylvania primary looks to four veteran political watchers from different parts of the state. J. Whyatt Mondesire is publisher and editor of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun.

Nell McCormack Abom is host of the public affairs program "Smart Talk" on WITF-TV. That's the public television station in Harrisburg.

Terry Madonna is a pollster and professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. He also joins us from Harrisburg.

And Salena Zito is a political reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Thank you all four for being here. And before we get to the candidates and this controversy over the comments by Senator Obama, let's talk about the state of Pennsylvania, its economy, who the voters are, and let's start with you, Jerry Mondesire.

Philadelphia, eastern, southeastern part of the state. Talk about what the economy means to the voters in that area and who are they?

J. WHYATT MONDESIRE, The Philadelphia Sunday Sun: Well, we're doing pretty well in the eastern part of the state.

In fact, Trump is building a new multimillion-dollar condominium tower here. A lot of the buildings going up all around Philadelphia are selling for extraordinary numbers these days. And, in fact, the foreclosure crisis that the rest of the country has seen really hasn't hit that bad yet here in Philadelphia.

We make up the lion's share of the voting now in Pennsylvania, not just the city of Philadelphia, but the four surrounding counties. Remember that Governor Rendell only won 10 counties out of the 67 here in Pennsylvania, but the population has so shifted now from the west to the east that the eastern part of the state, especially the southeast, has a dominant role in determining what happens.

So the best hope that Obama has to win the Pennsylvania primary is an extraordinary turnout in the city of Philadelphia and doing very well in the more affluent suburbs around the biggest city here in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And tell us, Jerry Mondesire, how much interest is there right now in this election?

J. WHYATT MONDESIRE: Off the scale. I told the local people we would call it an emotional tsunami within the African-American community. It is off-the-charts in the college campuses, both at Penn, at Temple, at Cheyney State. It's very active. The students have registered.

The registration edge here is so pro-Democrat right now that the previous numbers in the Pennsylvania -- in the suburbs around Philly had always been Republican. For the first time in 100 years, several of those counties now have gone Democratic for the first time ever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's skip over now to the western part of the state. Salena Zito, actually the southwestern part of the state being more accurate, Pittsburgh. Tell us, what shape is the economy in there and who are the voters?

SALENA ZITO, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: The voters in southwestern Pennsylvania, a good way to look at them is to think of them as almost like Midwestern voters.

As Jerry explained, in the east, you have a little more citified voters, a little more liberal, but if you go west of Philadelphia in those collar counties that he was talking about, the rest of Pennsylvania in a primary election is -- in a Democratic primary election, is much more of a Midwestern kind of voter.

They're more ethnic, Catholic. They are the God and guns voters, if you will, that Senator Obama was talking about. And they're very full of family traditions and labor traditions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that's Pittsburgh and the counties around Pittsburgh?

SALENA ZITO: The 11-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania describes them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the level of interest there?

SALENA ZITO: There's a strong amount of interest here. You see signs everywhere for Hillary, for Obama, for Ron Paul. You don't see many McCain signs right now.

But you see people talking about it in the street. You see people doing visibilities in the city, where volunteers will show up and just stand there with signs, and it's sort of like New Hampshire, only, you know, several months later.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, back now to the central, I guess south-central part of the state, and Nell McCormack Abom in Harrisburg. Same questions, what shape is the economy in? And who are the people who live in that part of the state?

NELL MCCORMACK ABOM, Public Television Host: Well, Judy, I'm glad you said south-central Pennsylvania, because here we have Harrisburg and Lancaster, York and Carlisle. Those are kind of the main communities here.

When people look outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they look at that T which Pennsylvania is famous for and they say it's a conservative T. James Carville has said it's sort of like Alabama. There is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and then Alabama in the middle.

That's not really true right where we are. Harrisburg is largely African-American. You have a sizable influx of Latinos coming into York and into Lancaster. So they have different sensibilities; they're looking for different kinds of messages perhaps from these candidates.

But what you've seen here is tremendous interest. Dauphin County has historically, as far back as people can remember, been a Republican area. They are within 1,600 voters of being even with the Republicans. That's amazing. Lancaster County saw a huge influx, 8,000 voters coming in to Democratic ranks.

Now, the Republicans still outnumber 2-to-1 the Democrats in Lancaster County. But it is clear that this election is unlike any other recent presidential one in terms of voter interest, voter enthusiasm.

Now, regarding the economy, jobs here in central Pennsylvania, right here in the Harrisburg area, Lancaster, are tied to state government. And as a taxpayer, you'll know, unfortunately, state and local governments, those jobs are a little recession-proof. They've done pretty well. We've had growth in those areas.

But for the most part, at the same time, globalization of the economy has meant the loss of jobs in many of our manufacturing communities. And today you saw Barack Obama's campaign trying to do a little damage control, having events at 11-some shuttered plants, some still open, but with diminished numbers of workers, to try to say, "What I talked about wasn't just my feeling about these people; it's the reality of the economic hardships facing people here in Pennsylvania."

Obama slowly closing the gap

Terry Madonna
Franklin & Marshall College
[I]n the final analysis, this is going to be a kind of east-west battle. The Susquehanna River may well be a dividing line between the eastern part of the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, and I do want to come to that in just a second, but first I want to come to Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College, Terry, because you follow politics all over the state. What have we left out? Let's talk about the rest of the state.

TERRY MADONNA, Franklin and Marshall College: Well, of course, we have the northeastern part of the state, which we call, you know, we can call Bob Casey country. It's Lackawanna and Luzerne. It's heavily Democratic; it's heavy ethnic. It was the old hard coal industry in the state.

And Hillary Clinton will probably do well there. We'll see. Bob Casey has been working very hard.

Then we have another huge growth area in the northeastern part of the state, well into the northeastern part of the state, in Monroe and Pike. These are counties where lots of folks have come in from New Jersey and New York to buy either second homes or first homes, doing the commute to northern New Jersey and New York. And then there's the Lehigh Valley, which is Allentown.

The interesting thing, Judy, in the final analysis, this is going to be a kind of east-west battle. The Susquehanna River may well be a dividing line between the eastern part of the state, where Barack Obama must do well and should do well, if he wants to eke out some kind of a narrow victory, something that may be difficult for him to do.

The western part of the state will, I think, go overwhelmingly for Senator Clinton. But this economy is very, very diverse and much more complex than James Carville indicated in 1986 when he made that famous statement that Nell mentioned a moment ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stay with you, Terry Madonna, and ask you about the reaction to these two candidates. Obama has made up a lot of ground in the polls. Now comes this comment he made in the last couple of weeks that just came to light at the end of last week. What's your sense of whether that's going to hurt him or not?

TERRY MADONNA: I mean, I think it's going to do some damage, the extent to which we don't know yet. And I think we do have to separate two things.

You know, what did he really mean and what is his attitude? And then the way the Clinton campaign is handling it, they're separate questions.

Make no mistake about it: Senator Clinton, when this campaign began, now six weeks ago, had a 15- to 17-point lead. On average, it's probably somewhere between 6 percent and 10 percent, Judy.

Obama made up ground by good commercials, 3-to-1 in terms of their frequency on Pennsylvania television and a very successful six-week tour.

Now what is happening, as a result of the flap over his statements made at that San Francisco fundraiser, is it's got him off-message. He's defending what he's doing. He's having to go, and now he has a commercial on the air with Senator Casey, in which, you know, a blue-collar working class Catholic guy, Bob Casey's dad was a coal miner, trying to do some damage control.

I think it will hurt the senator, Senator Obama. How much? We do not know. But it certainly, I think, contributed to whatever momentum loss he will have in our state.

Impact of 'bitter' comments unknown

Nell McCormack Abom
Smart Talk
[I]f there's one thing you know about Pennsylvania voters, they like familiarity. They want to know what they're buying when they put their money on the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And back to Philadelphia and to Jerry Mondesire. What are you seeing and hearing there among the voters you're talking to?

J. WHYATT MONDESIRE: The comment he made about the gun-toting residents in small town, obviously, he wasn't talking about Philadelphia or the big, you know, or a big city like Pittsburgh. It really hasn't resonated here. Folks are very watchful of a debate, which will be Wednesday. It might be the last debate between the two of them.

It's the hottest ticket in town. I wish I could sell mine, because I could make some money on it. It's a huge interest level here, as one of the commentators mentioned, signs.

You know, the Obama signs in Pennsylvania sell for $10, and they're running out of them. It's just that much enthusiasm here. People are making up their own buttons; the young people have made up their own signs. They signed up voters, you know, as I said earlier, extraordinary numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, the mayor -- it's not only Governor Rendell, but it's the mayor of Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter, who's endorsed Senator Clinton. How much of an effect is that having that you see in the Philadelphia area?

J. WHYATT MONDESIRE: Mostly in the press, that he's asked a lot of questions about it, because he's African-American. He comes from an Ivy League background. How can an Ivy League mayor who's African-American who ran on a reform platform not endorse the African-American who's running for president?

By and large, though, the public doesn't hold him with any blame for that decision. They see it as a very strategic one, because the city did so well when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Salena Zito, back to you in Pittsburgh, what are you hearing? What are you seeing? I know you've been writing about this in the last couple of days, reaction to the Obama comment.

SALENA ZITO: Well, it's mixed. Pittsburgh is different from Philadelphia. You have more of that working-class, ethnic, white people that might have taken offense to that.

I asked a couple of the steelworkers today that were at the rally what they thought, and a lot of them said it swayed them towards Clinton. A couple of them said that it made no difference to them at all; they didn't think that that was his intent.

It's pretty much divided down the middle in terms of how people are affected by this.

You go outside of Pittsburgh 15 minutes, and you're in the small towns that he was talking about and you see a little stronger reaction. People are a little less forgiving about what he said.

So, you know, as Terry said, we'll have to wait and see. It depends on what the narrative becomes after today. I mean, does this continue on? Does a video come out of him saying this? What happens after that? It depends on where Hillary and where Barack takes the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure. And we do have eight days to go or I guess seven days now.

Nell McCormack Abom, you're in the middle of small cities and small towns. What are you hearing there?

NELL MCCORMACK ABOM: Well, I went last night when Senator Obama went to Steelton. There's a steel hall there where they gather together, representatives from something like eight unions. Now, granted, these were invited guests, so they tended to be pro-Obama.

And what I heard was predominantly they're willing to give him a break and say, "I believe what he said, that he said it inartfully, but that what he said, this feeling of bitterness that we have about the loss of our jobs, it might be more anger and frustration at the kinds of things that have happened.

But the reality is, for instance, right down the street, the Steelton steel plant, something like 3,000 jobs have been lost since 2002. Those people were promised health care. They were promised full pensions. And, in fact, all of those things have been cut. And they said, "You cannot erase that kind of bitterness."

At the same time, I have to tell you, I specifically went up to several older white men, many of them were Teamsters wearing their Teamsters jackets. And I said, "What do you think?" They didn't want to go on the record, but the bottom line for them was they brought up Reverend Wright and his comments. They brought up this feeling, "I'm just not sure about this guy."

And if there's one thing you know about Pennsylvania voters, they like familiarity. They want to know what they're buying when they put their money on the table. They want to know when they go into that booth and they pull that lever what that person stands for.

Barack Obama has not answered all of those questions yet. And in this Democratic primary, that could be decisive. If they have questions, what are they going to do on April 22nd? We don't know the answer to that question yet.

More hard campaigning ahead

J. Whyatt Mondesire
Philadelphia Sunday Sun
Senator Clinton has to really show that her health care plan is better and that it works, that it will work better, and actually address the needs, particularly of the western part of the state, where the jobs have been lost in much larger numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly to the others, Terry Madonna, very quickly, what does Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama need to do in the next week?

TERRY MADONNA: I think, for Hillary Clinton, she has to convince voters that her experience matters, that she can best provide the leadership that the country needs. I think she will continue to use this issue because it probably is resonating where it needs to resonate.

On the other hand, I think Obama has to get over that and get back on message, that he's the change-oriented candidate, that it's time to move from the policies of the past and go back to the themes that were so successful for him in the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly, Jerry Mondesire, what does both Obama -- what do they both need to do? What are the voters looking for, very quickly?

J. WHYATT MONDESIRE: You have to put those caustic comments behind him real quickly and move onto another issue. And Terry is absolutely right. Senator Clinton has to really show that her health care plan is better and that it works, that it will work better, and actually address the needs, particularly of the western part of the state, where the jobs have been lost in much larger numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there, but I want to thank all four of you for being with us, Terry Madonna, Salena Zito, Jerry Mondesire, and Nell McCormack Abom. We thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Our coverage of the Pennsylvania primary continues on our Web site. All kinds of data and background reports, among other things, are there. They're available at