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.
That's not good news for Democrats in a state with 21 Electoral College votes the party might need this fall. Rendell, a former national Democratic Party chairman, says Democrats won't get the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency without winning at least three of four big swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
In the past two presidential elections, President Bush won Ohio and Florida — with the Buckeye State making the difference in 2004 and Florida playing the crucial role in 2000.
"John McCain does not have to win Pennsylvania, but I think he can come close," Casey says. "We have to win it."
Democrats see surge in voters
Enthusiasm in Pennsylvania appears to be with Democrats: The party enjoyed a huge voter-registration surge this spring, doubling its edge over Republicans to more than 1 million votes.
Even so, Rendell is uneasy about a state where Republicans control the state Senate and the senior U.S. senator — the longest serving in state history — is Arlen Specter, a Republican with an independent streak, not unlike McCain.
"He's the best candidate (Republicans) could have nominated for Pennsylvania," Rendell says about McCain, whose experience as a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war should play well. Veterans make up more than 11% of the adult population and the state consistently ranks among the top three in National Guard enrollments.
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Robert Gleason calls Clinton "too liberal" for the state and says Obama can't win after his "dissing of the electorate" here. Gleason says his goal is to woo the "Reagan Democrats" who gave the GOP big wins here during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
"We're going to be ready in the fall," Gleason says. History suggests that Clinton and Obama will face challenges in Pennsylvania as the Democratic nominee.
No woman or African-American has been elected governor or U.S. senator in the state, and blacks and women are underrepresented in other offices. More than half the state's voting-age population is made up of women; blacks make up 10.4% of the population.
Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat and Obama supporter, is the only black member of Pennsylvania's 21-member congressional delegation, and the fourth African-American to represent the state in Congress.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz, another Philadelphia Democrat and a Clinton supporter, is the only woman among the state's 19 House members. She is the sixth woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
"We have a great heritage. America was started here, but sometimes we're a little too steeped in our tradition," Tom McMahon, the mayor of Reading, says of Pennsylvania's reluctance to diversify its political leadership.
McMahon says he got some angry calls when he announced his endorsement of Obama: "I think there's a bit of racism below the surface."
Making a statement
For many blacks and women here, Pennsylvania's Democratic primary isn't about choosing the candidate most likely to win in November.
It's about making a statement in a state where they have struggled for political visibility. Louise Williams, Lancaster's City Council president, admits that her personal experience is playing a key role in determining her vote.
Williams, an African-American, says she's seen more improvements here on race issues than she has on gender issues. "Discrimination against color is less acceptable than discrimination against women," says Williams, 70. She's supporting Clinton.
In York, about 30 miles east of Lancaster, unresolved racial tensions played a key part in Mayor John Brenner's election. Brenner was nominated to the post in 2000 when then-mayor Charlie Robertson was indicted in a murder case, stemming from the death of a young black woman in a race riot in 1969.
Robertson, a police officer at the time of the riots, ultimately was acquitted. But two co-defendants were convicted, and the case reopened deep wounds.
Brenner, who is white, hired professional facilitators to run community discussion groups "so York could cleanse and heal itself." He said the experience influenced his decision to endorse Obama.
York and neighboring Lancaster were named after the blue-blood clans whose rival claims on the British thrones set off a series of battles that provided fodder for many of Shakespeare's famous plays.
This year, however, the mayors of both south-central Pennsylvania cities are on the same side: Brenner and Lancaster Mayor Richard Gray have endorsed Obama. They've formed an informal team with McMahon of nearby Reading.
"We're like the three tenors," McMahon quips.
It's a striking development, not only because most Pennsylvania mayors are following Rendell's lead and backing Clinton, but because the three cities sit at the base of the T, as local politicians call the state's small-town central core and rural northern tier. The region votes so conservatively that Democratic strategist James Carville once famously described it as "Alabama."
That still irks locals such as Gray, a cheerful iconoclast who owns 12 motorcycles and decorates his office with his wife's paintings.
Gray cites the three mayors' endorsements as proof that Democrats in the region are "more progressive" than many of their peers in urban Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Ringing the edge of Amish country, where farmers still travel by horse and buggy, Reading, Lancaster and York reflect the tension between progress and tradition in a state with one foot on the East Coast and another at the edge of the Midwest. They are cities with a proud manufacturing past giving way to a still-uncertain future.
York, where the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1777, is the kind of city Bruce Springsteen writes songs about.
The York Barbell Co. and the Weightlifting Hall of Fame earned the city the nickname, "Muscletown, USA." A Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory is one of the city's biggest employers. But a steady loss of manufacturing jobs has forced Brenner to try to transform what once was a big-shouldered industrial economy.
The mayor is busy rehabbing the city's brick town homes to attract families and businesses priced out of the Baltimore market, one hour south. "We're trying to brand ourselves as a design center," he said.
Reading has been through waves of reinventing itself: The city decades ago lost one of its first manufacturing businesses when textile mills moved south. More recently, Agere, a major employer, moved thousands of jobs at its computer chip-making facility to Asia.
In what may be the ultimate indignity, Pennsylvania-based Hershey's last year announced plans to close a Reading factory where it made 5th Avenue candy bars and York Peppermint Patties.
"Those jobs are going to Mexico," McMahon said. Teamsters union President James Hoffa held a rally for Obama on April 9 outside the soon-to-be-shuttered candy plant's gates.
Meanwhile, the face of the community is changing: The population of Berks County, where Reading is located, is nearly 13% Hispanic, compared with 4.2% statewide.
In 1990, Hispanics made up 5% of the population in Berks and 2% of Pennsylvania's population. McMahon has welcomed the new population, and messages on City Hall answering machines are now in English and Spanish.
Not everyone feels that way about their new neighbors. In Hazleton, about an hour's drive northeast, Mayor Lou Barletta, a Republican, won re-election last year with 90% of the vote after launching a crusade against what he said was a crime wave spawned by illegal immigrants.
In York, Brenner said he got in hot water with his City Council when he tried to push a resolution supporting immigrants.
Last week, in automated calls made on Obama's behalf, Brenner said the senator "got it right" when he told a San Francisco fundraiser that some in Pennsylvania's struggling small towns "get bitter" and "cling to guns or religion or anti-pathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Though his political opponents quickly pounced — Clinton and McCain said Obama's comments were elitist — some Pennsylvania voters disagreed.
When Obama told a Pittsburgh forum on the future of manufacturing that he'd been getting flak for describing Pennsylvania workers as "bitter," one of the many steelworkers in the audience yelled: "We are!"
Still, there were some in the largely Democratic crowd who say they aren't impressed with Obama.
Felice Di Pietrantonio, a retired steelworker, says he's for Clinton because "it's time for a woman. They couldn't screw it up any worse than these men."
If Obama wins the nomination, he says, "I'd vote for a Republican for the first time in my life."
Such sentiments worry Jackie Mullins, a retired steelworker who is wavering between Clinton and Obama. She likes both but doesn't like the way they've been going after each other.
"In the end," Mullins says, "they are going to have to work together."