Pennsylvania is the new New Hampshire.
Forget the frenzied cross-country campaign blitzes before Super Tuesday, or even the Ohio-Texas shuttle of the past month. For the next seven weeks, with brief breaks to visit Wyoming and Mississippi, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will be focusing on one state: Pennsylvania. They will be trekking from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back again in pursuit of the last big stash of delegates — 158 — that could give one of them a stronger claim to the presidential nomination.
Between now and the April 22 primary, there will be plenty of time for town hall meetings, diner drive-bys, local TV interviews, door-to-door canvassing and other staples of retail politics that late-voting primary states rarely see. The last time Pennsylvania had a competitive primary was 1976, when then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter defeated Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and knocked him out of the race.
"People are telling me, 'My cousin's wife's niece wants to meet Sen. Obama,' " says state Democratic Party chairman T.J. Rooney, a Clinton supporter. "Show up at a diner and he just might walk in the door."
Clinton is leading the wave: On Wednesday, she sent daughter Chelsea to campaign at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Soon, the candidates, their staffs, hordes of media and the attention of the political world will envelop the state of 12.4 million people.
"Are people coming? I should have tidied up. I should have Febrezed," jokes Mark Nevins, Clinton's Pennsylvania communications director.
Like in Ohio, demographics, economic issues and political leadership in Pennsylvania favor Clinton.
It is heavy on older and blue-collar voters and union households. Its popular governor, Ed Rendell, and recently elected Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter have endorsed Clinton.
Her wins in Ohio and Texas have bought her time to make her case to voters that she is the more experienced and tested candidate. Her campaign is hoping that it also gives Obama more opportunities to stumble such as the recent kerfuffle over his position on U.S. trade with Canada and whether his criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement amounted to political theater or policy proposals.
"This is her state, her state to lose," says Terry Madonna, public affairs professor and poll director at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "There are a lot more elements in the environment here that favor her than him."
A recent Franklin & Marshall poll showed Clinton leading Obama 44% to 32%, with 20% undecided. The margin of error was +/-5.6%.
Obama's past victories suggest he will have support from African-American voters in Philadelphia and could benefit from strong anti-war sentiment in the city's suburbs.
Clinton "starts off every state with the backing of the political establishment," says Sean Smith, Obama's Pennsylvania spokesman. "We've overcome that in most of the states. This is not the year that you want to be the candidate of the establishment. Voters are hungry for change."
Obama still holds delegate edge
Winning Ohio and Texas was good news for Clinton, but it didn't help her catch up to Obama in delegates. On Tuesday, Clinton won at least 185 delegates and Obama won at least 173. He still leads her by 1,567 delegates to 1,462, including the party and elected officials known as "super delegates." It takes 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.