Bowling Alley Voters Warm Up to Obama

After striking out with Pennsylvania voters before, Obama gains support.

November 3, 2008, 4:06 PM

Nov. 3, 2008— -- The Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania is the heart of old steel country -- towns like Allentown and Bethlehem. It is the kind of place with the kind of voters who gave Barack Obama trouble during the primaries; blue-collar, white, working-class.

Obama lost Lehigh County by 20 percentage points in the primary, on his way to losing Pennsylvania by 9 points to Sen. Hillary Clinton.

When we visited the AMF Parkway Bowling Lanes in Allentown in March, not a single person there said he or she was voting for Obama; and it wasn't just his politics. Clearly, race was a factor. "I would say so, it's a factor," said Eugene Podorsky, a retired steelworker.

And few thought Obama would have mass appeal in Pennsylvania, "There's not that many colored in Pennsylvania that will be on his side," Ed Karpinski, 81, said last spring.

But eight months later, on the eve of the general election, the mood is different.

"I believe he's the right man for the job at the moment," Bob Kotsch, 81, who voted for Hillary in the primaries, said, echoing the sentiment at the bowling alley now.

So, what has changed since March? First of all, the subject. Then, the talk was about Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his bombastic sermons.

Last spring, Neil Thomason, 47, said, "I guess the problem that I have is the fact that [Obama] was sitting at church all the time, and he was hearing that kind of stuff and he didn't say something sooner."

But, now, Thomason has two Obama signs on his lawn. He says he cares less about Wright, and more about the economy.

"The way things are going with the country right now, I think there are more important issues," he said. "I just don't want another four years of Bush."

Karpinski was also a solid Clinton supporter last spring. He, too, cited Wright back then, among other factors. "I think he's too damn young," Karpinski said in March.

But now that Obama has a different opponent, Karpinski has a different take on the age issue. "McCain, pardon the expression, I think he's just too old to take office."

And what about his concerns about Wright, and other issues? "I could live with them," Karpinksi said.

At this one bowling alley, Obama has apparently made inroads with Clinton Democrats, and at least one Bush Republican. Willy Warmkessel is a 40-year-old truck driver who says he voted for both George Bushes.

"I voted for both of them," he said. "But right now I'm at a point where I think there needs to be a generational change. Something in Washington needs to change and, right now, I think Obama is the guy to give us that."

But skeptics remain. "There's just certain things about him that scare me a little bit," said Kevin Miller, a lifelong Democrat, who went with Clinton in primaries.

Miller said he believes Obama might be too liberal but, in the end, he predicts he will, in fact, vote for him.

For Obama, winning hearts in this bowling alley might be as tough, and as surprising, as any electoral votes in the country.