No One Wants to Call It in Key Pennsylvania County (Updated)

Oxford, Penn. (April 18) — Driving from Wilmington, Delaware across the state line into Pennsylvania, I found myself flanked by bucolic farms and tony homes. This is Chester County, fifteenth in terms of wealth among all counties nationwide and first or second among counties in Pennsylvania. Crime is relatively low here, County Commissioner Carole Aichele later told me, “and our public education here is the envy of the state.”

Arriving at the Wyncote Country Club for a luncheon with area elected officials, my instincts are confirmed: this is not a Democratic bastion. Indeed, Aichele is one of two Republicans on the three-member Board of Commissioners which has been under Republican rule for 149 years. Rep. Joe Pitts, Chester’s man in Washington, is one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress and delivers a strong pitch for making the Bush tax cuts permanent to the 40-or-so citizens who have gathered for lunch. State Sen. Dominic Pileggi and State Rep. Art Herschey (who is retiring after 26 years) also weigh in with conservative messages on government spending, as do County Commissioners Aichele and Terence Ferrell, Republicans both.

“This is a Republican area, all right,” Kathi Cozzone, the lone Democrat on Chester County’s Board of Commissioners, “but things could be changing.” She was referring to the exodus of Philadelphia voters to Chester, which is less than 40 miles away. One sign that political change might well be in the air is the intense activity in the Democratic primary for President, to be held April 22. Although there are contested primaries for other offices here, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dominates political talk out here.

Commissioner Cozzone made it clear to me who she supports: “I have endorsed Senator Obama and I will work my heart out for him.” Although she admires Bill Clinton and believes his wife and Obama are “very close on the issues,” Cozzone is passionately for the Illinoisan “because of the leadership he represents.” As to how the race is shaping up for Tuesday, she would not say. In her words, “This is unscientific and it’s just what I hear on the street, but it’s about 50-50 between them.”

Unscientific or not, Cozzone’s analysis was echoed by just about everyone I talked to here, in both parties. When I asked Republican Sen. Collegi how he thought the Democratic race look, he replied: “Can’t say. It’s too close. The advantage should go to Hillary Clinton, but I see a lot of Obama yardsigns in place.” Laurie Szoke, who works for Penn State University, agrees: “I can’t call it.” (When I asked who she favors, Szoke deadpanned: “Chelsea’s good!”).

What does it all mean? If Obama and Clinton are locked in a too-close-to-call contest in an area that is upscale and well-educated, it could well be a strong sign that the Illinoisan has a significant following outside major cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where he is expected to do well. And if that is the case, then the race on Tuesday might be closer than the latest polls that give Clinton a 5-to-10 percentage point lead statewide.

If enthusiasm and zeal for a candidate pack a political wallop, then Obama will do very well in Chester County. County Commissioner Ferrell, a Republican and an African-American who wins in a county that is about 6% black, told me he has “seen Obama and, I will tell you, he’s a real motivator with people. And he’s closing the gap.” (Ferrell, widely regarded as someone to watch in Keystone State politics, quickly added that George Bush carried the county over John Kerry handily “and I expect John McCain to do the same).

“I sure see enthusiasm for Obama among the students — lots of it!” Andre Dixon, director of community relations for nearby Lincoln University, told me before the luncheon. “There were about 200 of them gathered to watch the [ABC-TV] debate with Obama and Clinton Wednesday night and, boy, were they cheering Obama!” Republican Aichele recalled to me a recent dinner with some Democratic friends “and they were for Obama, and in a big way.”

In a primary where Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Democratic organizations and labor unions will play starring roles, still-Republican Chester County may not be a player in the balloting April 22. But in a close race, it could well become one — and one worth watching.

Developing Story

A Second Opinion:  "Watch New Voters," Says Former Mayoral Candidate

Philadelphia, Penn.–Stepping out of the Windsor Hotel here, I spied a familiar face walking down the Ben Franklin Parkway:  Sam Katz, three-time candidate for mayor and once a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.  Financier Katz lost two heart-breakingly close races, first in 1999 and then in ’03, against Democratic Mayor John Street, whose administration was clouded by corruption charges and incendiary racial rhetoric.  Looking back, many Philadelphians refer to Katz as the "best mayor Philly never had."
Introducing me to his son Phil (with whom the elder Katz is producing a documentary film on the history of Philadelphia), the former mayoral candidate immediately launched into a discussion on–guess what?–the primary tomorrow.

"It’s going to be close," Katz told me, disputing the polls conducted by Zogby, American Research, and Strategic Vision that give Hillary Clinton a fairly healthy lead over Barack Obama.  As to why his analysis differs from the numbers-crunchers and prognosticators, Katz simply said: "Watch new voters."

Although it is no secret and has been written about in newspapers, Katz observed, relatively little has been said about the fact "that nearly 300,000 new voters statewide have registered as  Democrats since the November elections [for municipal offices] last year."  Katz estimates that "maybe 50,000 are Republicans who re-registered as Democrats and 250,000 are young people who want to be involved as Democrats."   That figure, he concluded, "favors Obama."

As if to vindicate Katz’s somewhat unusual prognostication, the just-released SurveyUSA poll showed Clinton leading Obama by 50% to 44% statewide among likely Democratic primary voters.  A week ago, the same survey showed her with a 14-point lead statewide among likely primary voters.

24 Hours To Go And Hillary’s In the Lead

Philadelphia, Penn.(April 21) — "He’s Ahead in Phil., She Leads in Alabama."

That was the e-mail I retrieved upon arriving in Philadelphia last night.  Coming from Philadelphia "superlawyer" James Baumbach — once a top political troubleshooter for the late Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey, Sr.– the message followed up on the celebrated characterization of the Keystone State as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and between them Alabama." (which is most often attributed to James Carville, also an alumnus of the elder Casey’s 1986 campaign for governor).

Baumbach’s message said it all about the presidential primary tomorrow.  Barack Obama will score convincingly in Philadelphia, but in the rest of the state — primarily in blue collar turf such as Allentown and Scranton — Hillary Clinton should win handsomely. 

Sure, in higher-income areas such as Chester County, I found surprisingly strong Obama support.  Driving through suburban Fort Washington (about 40 miles from Philly) last night, my friend Ed Guzzo, an executive with Kellogg’s in Fort Washington, pointed out "you see a lot of yardsigns for Obama here." 

But there are more Allentowns and Scrantons than there are Fort Washingtons and Chester Counties.  Accordingly, the latest Zogby Poll released today showed Clinton leading Obama by a margin of 48% to 42% statewide among likely Democratic voters tomorrow.  The just-completed American Research poll gave Clinton a 54% to 41% lead statewide over Obama and Strategic Vision showed Clinton’s lead among likely primary voters to be 48% to 41%.

There is a case to be made that the former First Lady’s performance in the televised debate from Philadelphia April 16 and her hard-hitting campaigning here has put her in the front-runner’s spot today.  Clinton, according to the Los Angeles Times, "suggested Obama and not she had been clouding the last days of the campaigning with negativity, then launched a a series of attacks against the Illinois senator."

But the playing rough in Pennsylvania may have a longterm pricetag on it. A Suffolk University poll showed that a full 20% of Democratic primary voters would vote for John McCain in the fall if their favorite candidate is not nominated and another 4% said they would vote for independent Ralph Nader.  The Strategic Vision poll that showed Clinton leading Obama also showed McCain beating her among all voters statewide 46% to 42% and defeating Obama among Pennsylvanians 48% to 40%.