The Clintons are patrolling Pennsylvania as if they’re border collies herding all the stray sheep into the flock.
The same day that Hillary Clinton was campaigning door to door in Scranton, Bill Clinton was in Lewisburg, Bloomsburg, and Jim Thorpe, three small rural Pennsylvania communities in three different rural north-eastern counties. The day before, Chelsea Clinton was in Oregon; the day after, she was at colleges in western Pennsylvania.
Senator Clinton once dominated the race for the presidential nomination. After her win in New Hampshire, her strategists convinced her to concentrate on the “big vote” states, essentially ceding several of the Super Tuesday states to Senator Barack Obama, who had emerged as her primary rival. In that February 5 election, Obama edged Clinton in delegate votes, 847-834; more important, he took 14 states to Clinton’s eight.
The perception was that Clinton and her campaign not only were struggling but no longer had a chance to win the nomination. Although Clinton later won Texas and Ohio, two states she needed, she trails Obama in total delegate votes, 1,641-1,504, according to the Associated Press, with eight million voters and 158 delegate votes at stake in Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania also has an additional 29 super delegates, officially known as “unpledged delegates”.)
Less than two months after Super Tuesday, Obama has significantly narrowed the wide gap in voter perceptions that once gave Clinton significant advantage over the first-term Illinois senator in experience, health care, the economy, and the handling of the war in Iraq.
Both Gallup and Washington Post/ABC News polls reveal that nationally Obama is holding about a 10-point lead among Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Clinton’s double-digit lead over Obama has now dwindled to single figures. A Post/ABC poll reveals that 54 per cent of Americans now have an unfavourable view of Clinton, up from 40 per cent shortly after she won the New Hampshire primary only three months earlier.
Senator Clinton needs to win the Pennsylvania primary. Not just by a little, but by a wide margin to re-establish her credibility and to re-energise her supporters. Her biggest asset, although some would say it’s also her biggest liability, is her husband.
When in Pennsylvania, President Clinton often gives as many as five or six speeches a day in university auditoriums, middle school gyms, YMCAs, and just about any place that will accommodate an enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred. Two weeks ago, he even put a green scarf around his neck and walked in the St Patrick’s Day parade of the small mining community of Girardville in Schuylkill County. From the crowds, he gets his sustenance, and when he shakes your hand and looks you in the eye, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by a man whose enthusiasm and joy resonates with every voter.
During his own presidential campaigns, Bill Clinton never came to most of the rural communities whose voters he is now courting for his wife. If Hillary Clinton wasn’t fighting for her political life he probably wouldn’t be in those communities either since no local sponsor can afford his $100,000-$200,000 speaking fee. But, here he is, one of the nation’s brightest and most charismatic presidents, giving brilliant and perceptive campaign speeches, smiling, and shaking hands in some of the most rural parts of rural America, not unlike his home town of Hope, Ark., among people with some of the same values.
It is these communities that have become Senator Clinton’s now dwindling base - white, middle-class, middle-aged and elderly women in rural areas. Obama has taken huge leads in urban areas and the suburbs, among youth, the college-educated, and blacks, groups that gave Bill Clinton a strong advantage in his campaigns and that once gave his wife that same advantage. To cut into Obama’s huge lead, Chelsea Clinton, with no pressure from either of her parents, has visited more than 100 colleges to court first time voters. Even conservative students, some of whom mistakenly believe John McCain is too liberal, are stunned by Chelsea’s intelligence, eloquence, and enthusiasm.
But, here and now, in communities where most of the residents are conservative, many of whom once spit out the word “liberal”, the people have become a part of Bill Clinton’s aura, participants in a campaign event they never imagined. And they are identifying with Senator Clinton, who is drawing support from evangelical and Catholic older white women living in rural America, who see her as a role model - an intelligent, successful, white woman, now in her early 60s, who has a long history of concern and activism for children, healthcare, and the disenfranchised.
Large numbers of Clinton supporters at least once voted for George W. Bush. But, during the past two years they have become disenchanted with the commander-in-chief’s policies that have led mothers to mourn their children trapped by a half-trillion dollar quagmire euphemistically known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, and by a president who has run up the largest deficit in history and has driven the nation into a recession, one that has affected the people of rural America far more than it has the CEOs in New York City.