FOREST HILLS, Pa. -- At Rep. Mike Doyle's annual picnic here in this Pittsburgh suburb, Janet Keane recalled coming home during the Depression, when "honest to God, there was nothing to eat."
Keane, 85, a longtime friend of the Democratic congressman, said last week that she's looking for someone who will spare her grandchildren that experience as she tries to decide between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain in the presidential election Nov. 4.
"I like McCain," she said. "But I don't like that he's a Bush man."
At the Jenkintown Jazz Festival a few weeks earlier in the Philadelphia suburbs, social worker Ron Fisher worried about Obama's prospects. "America is trying to find any excuse not to elect him because he's a black man," Fisher said.
The two conversations at opposite ends of the state sum up why McCain and Obama are continuing to compete fiercely for Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes.
'Have to win'
On paper, the state should be a slam-dunk for Obama: The last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George H.W. Bush, the father of the current president, in 1988. Democrats also have doubled their edge this year in voter registrations from Republicans, up from a 600,000 lead over the GOP last year to 1.2 million as of last week, in part because the Illinois senator has been engaged in a massive effort to sign up new voters.
But anxieties about the economy and Obama have made for an unpredictable dynamic. Despite a 13-point lead that Obama enjoys in RealClearPolitics.com's compilation of Pennsylvania polls, his supporters here are only "cautiously optimistic," said Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.
Republicans such as former governor Tom Ridge hope McCain's military record and conservative views on issues such as abortion will appeal to voters in a state where military veterans are about 14% of the population and Roman Catholics about 30%.
Democrats such as Fisher worry that Obama's status as the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party could hurt him in a state where the only blacks elected to statewide office have been a few judges running on party tickets.
What is giving McCain supporters some hope — and Obama's backers pause — is the Democrat's poor performance in the state's April 22 primary.
Hillary Rodham Clinton thumped Obama by ratios of nearly 3 to 1 in some important Democratic strongholds.
In Cambria County — where McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, drew thousands to a rally in Johnstown on Saturday — Clinton got 72% of the vote to Obama's 28%. In Lackawanna County — where Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, joined Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden for a rally in Biden's boyhood home of Scranton on Sunday — Clinton beat Obama handily, 74%-26%.
For McCain, Pennsylvania remains a prime target. Today, the Arizona senator makes his 15th visit to the state since June. Obama has made six visits.
"We have to win it," said Ridge, a co-chairman of McCain's campaign. "The candidate who wins Pennsylvania wins it all."
McCain supporters are trying to make the case that he better represents the state's conservative voters. Ridge, a fellow Vietnam War veteran, is highlighting McCain's record as a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war.
The former governor said he also plans to headline a "We're Not Bitter" tour that reminds voters of Obama's controversial remark that people in small Pennsylvania towns "cling to guns or religion" because they are bitter over the loss of manufacturing jobs. Palin also brought up Obama's remark in Johnstown and stressed her opposition to abortion, vowing the GOP ticket would foster a "culture of life."
That message persuaded Anne Soteros of suburban Philadelphia to back the Republican ticket. "I'm right-to-life," she said. "It's always been important to me."
Republicans are also relying on Palin — a hunter and wife of a steelworker — to appeal to Democrats who voted for Clinton.
Judi Pistorius, a retired nurse who spent a recent Sunday working at McCain's western Pennsylvania phone bank, said Palin inspired her to volunteer for a presidential campaign, the first time she's done so. "I was really thrilled," Pistorius said.
Democrats are countering with Biden, whose blue-collar upbringing in Scranton and familiarity to voters in the eastern part of the state — where the Delaware senator is a regular on Philadelphia TV news shows — make him an asset here. He almost hooked Tim Simmons, a telecommunications executive from suburban Philadelphia. "I got more comfortable when Biden got on the ticket," he said. But he went back to his GOP roots when Palin was named. "I think she's a rip," Simmons said, adding: "I agree with Sarah's abortion position."
Race as a factor
Some of Obama's supporters believe that his difficulty in Pennsylvania has nothing to do with the issues. "The hardest part is trying to convince people because he's African American," said Anthony Mosesso, a Democratic committeeman on Pittsburgh's South Side.
If there is a closet vote based on race, Obama strategists hope to trump it by bringing minorities and younger voters to the polls in record numbers. A USA TODAY analysis of state voting registration shows that this strategy has been effective here: The highest rates of new voter sign-ups occur in counties such as Philadelphia, home to several colleges and where the minority population is disproportionately high.
Labor leaders admit they're worried about bigotry in their ranks. The United Steelworkers is training door knockers to respond to racist comments. In June, Rich Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, recounted how a woman from his hometown of Nemacolin, in the state's southwestern corner, told him she wouldn't support Obama because he is black. "We can't tap- dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there just like that woman," he said.
There are fewer of them now after two weeks of bad economic news, said Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. He predicted that economic anxiety will drive conservative Democrats back home. "If you're drowning in the middle of a river and there's some guy on the bank with a long rope, you don't care if he's white, black, yellow or purple," he said. "You just hope he's got a strong enough arm to pull you in."