Just three weeks ago, Pennsylvania's Republican presidential primary was the pinnacle of political intrigue—an unpredictable showdown between a native son with an insurgent candidacy fueled by the party's social conservative wing, and an establishment favorite aiming to regain his air of inevitability as the party's eventual nominee.
Rick Santorum's decision to drop out of the race two weeks ago sucked virtually all of the drama out of Pennsylvania's primary. But as voters in the state head to the polls Tuesday to hand Mitt Romney an expected victory, the presumptive Republican nominee faces an equally suspenseful question: Can he win the state in November?
If polls are to be believed, Romney has the best shot of any Republican presidential candidate in recent years of carrying Pennsylvania in the general election.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters in the state found President Barack Obama leading Romney by just 3 points, 45 percent to 42 percent (a result barely outside the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points).
According to Quinnipiac, 50 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania disapprove of the job Obama is doing as president—a number higher than Obama's disapproval rating nationally. Asked if the president deserves a second term in office, half of those polled say no—another number that has been substantially higher than the national polling average.
"Romney has a real chance to win this state," G. Terry Madonna, head of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research, told Yahoo News. "All signs that we see indicate that this will be a pretty close election."
But as a swing state, Pennsylvania has long been a political tease to Republican presidential contenders—seeming to be in their grasp as late as the final days of the general election, only to slip away.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush spent millions of dollars on TV ads and crisscrossed the state—only to lose to his opponents Al Gore and John Kerry by 5 points or less. In 2008, John McCain was virtually tied with Obama in Pennsylvania up until October and spent days holding last-minute town halls around the state. Yet Obama eventually won Pennsylvania by 10 points—one of his biggest margins of victory among the so-called swing states.
A Republican candidate hasn't won Pennsylvania since 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried the state.
But Obama faces a far different political climate in Pennsylvania than he did four years ago, when he was elected as the candidate who could bring change to Washington. He now faces a state that is filled with angst over the state of the economy.
"The economy is the driving issue in Pennsylvania and it's an issue where Obama is extremely vulnerable," Madonna said.