Pols Battle to Win Pa. in 2004

Pennsylvania is a state of struggling steel towns, farm country brimming with Pennsylvania Dutch, leafy suburbs and a small but significant number of voters who are fiercely independent, tough sells.

Not that the candidates aren't trying — President Bush made 34 visits to the battleground state as president, more than any other state excluding Texas. Sen. John Kerry has visited Pennsylvania 15 times in six months.

The state's major cities historically vote for Democrats, while the rural regions lean Republican, so both candidates are focusing on ticket-splitting voters in the densely populated counties outside Philadelphia, where the race could not be any tighter. The candidates have both visited the Philadelphia area within the last few days — Bush was in Montgomery County on Thursday, Kerry was in Lehigh County one day later.

Many Pennsylvania voters have yet to make up their minds.

"At this point, I just can't make a decision on either one," said Vickey Lewis, who was eating brunch at the City View Diner in Allentown after church Sunday. "I'm totally undecided."

"Here the ticket-splitters really do determine the election, and the ticket-splitters aren't just those who are registered as independents," said Roy Afflerbach, mayor of Allentown, which is part of Lehigh County, one of the state's hotly contested areas. "They're Republicans and Democrats who cross over routinely."

"If you win in the Lehigh valley you'll win statewide," the mayor said. If one ignores the anomaly of the last election — with Al Gore winning the popular vote but losing in the electoral battles — "generally it's been a bellwether nationally as well."

Keith Miller spent Sunday at an Allentown sports bar watching football, where he was rooting for the Eagles and for Bush, even though he voted for Al Gore in 2000.

"September 11th, he was a very strong person," Miller said of Bush. "When he says he's going to do something, he's going to do it."

Miller is representative of a group of Pennsylvanians to whom Kerry needs to pay attention. A new ABC News poll indicates that in the Keystone State, Bush is attracting twice as many Democrats (14 percent) as Kerry is Republicans.

Kerry Taps Into Economic Anxiety

But Kerry may be able to tap into Pennsylvania's economic anxiety.

Pennsylvania's landscape is pocked with dozens of closed steel mills and shuttered factories, landmarks to the demise of an industry and a way of life.

Jerome Sefcik worked in the steel industry for 21 years before the plants closed. Now he works as a groundskeeper for the county courthouse.

Sefcik voted for Bush in 2000, but is now "leaning towards Kerry, because we need jobs."

When Bush came to Lehigh County last month, he spoke about missile defense. But what got noticed were his more culinary observations. "A lot of people are wondering why I'm coming so much," the president said. "It ought to be obvious to you: I like my cheesesteak 'Whiz with.' "

"Whiz with" means "with Cheese Whiz," and it was a whack at Kerry for having recently ordered the area delicacy with Swiss cheese, a perceived no-no.

Has it really come down to cheese here? Heck, it's come down to any item to win any one of these swing voters.

Politics are everywhere in the Lehigh Valley, even if the candidates cannot be. On one recent day, there was an Irish-Americans for Kerry picnic, a Rock the Vote voter registration concert at Lehigh University, much intense voter outreach by both campaigns and a few church services where Bush's position against gay marriage and abortion was lauded.

"I explain to them, they should vote for the person going from the Bible," said the Rev. Hector Rodriquez, a Pentecostal minister at Iglesia de Cristo Misionera in downtown Allentown.

Allentown's Kevin French favors Bush on national security issues but likes Kerry's stance on the economy. So how is he going to make his final decision?

"I don't know. 'Eeenie, meenie, minie, moe,' " he said, laughing.

The state motto is "You've got a friend in Pennsylvania," but neither candidate is taking any friend for granted.