At Champ's Barbershop School here, Maria Hall, the owner's wife, said she registered to vote for the first time so she could cast a ballot for Democrat Barack Obama. "I think he's going to be a great president," said Hall, 35.
Julianne Dickson, a former City Council president and die-hard Democrat, isn't sure what she'll do in November if Obama is the party's nominee instead of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Dickson, 66, coached women's field hockey and recalls begging for funds before the passage of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that gave women equal access to school athletics. Today, "I owe my job to a sex discrimination suit," says Dickson, an insurance agent hired after her company settled a case with female employees who said they were losing promotions to less experienced men.
The idea that Obama might stop Clinton from becoming the nation's first female major-party presidential nominee has Dickson thinking that "it's happening again. I know that's why it has become so personal to me."
Hall and Dickson represent the promise — and the pitfalls — looming for Democrats as they prepare to vote Tuesday in a state that encapsulates many of the political challenges the candidates must overcome in November against Republican John McCain.
Pennsylvania is home to an older population worrying about Social Security and Medicare. There are struggling industrial towns trying to find a new path to prosperity and a growing number of Hispanics in the middle of the state whose presence has raised political tensions. The state also has hard-to-peg voters who haven't elected many women or minorities to high office and who — even though registration tilts Democratic — have elected conservative Republicans.
For Clinton, the Pennsylvania primary is a must-win. Trailing in the delegate count, she needs a victory here to convince superdelegates — the party insiders and elected officials who may decide the nomination — that she's the candidate most likely to prevail in big states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania that the Democrats need to win the White House.
Obama significantly narrowed Clinton's 20-percentage-point lead in the polls here before his gaffe April 6 about "bitter" voters who "cling to guns or religion" in the face of economic dislocation. Now he must recover to demonstrate that he can attract white, blue-collar voters Democrats need to win this fall.
For the Democratic Party, however, the most pressing question is not who will win Tuesday. It's whether divided party activists will be able to pull together after a bruising contest in which race, gender and the possibility of making history have given disagreements an unusually emotional edge.
"It won't be easy," concedes Sen. Robert Casey. Gov. Ed Rendell agrees. In nearly 30 years of campaigning, Rendell says he's never been involved in a contest in which feelings have run so strong. The state's two top elected Democrats reflect the divide: Rendell is leading Clinton's campaign here; Casey is backing Obama.
In a Quinnipiac Poll released last week, 26% of Clinton supporters in the Keystone State said that if Obama were the Democratic nominee they would vote for McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, in November. Meanwhile, 19% of Obama's backers said they would support McCain if Clinton were his Democratic opponent.