In Pennsylvania, white male vote is key

White men are a critical group of voters for Democratic candidates in Tuesday's primary – and the most ambivalent.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Canvassing: Ann Frantti and her son, Travis Frantti, came from Albany, N.Y., to drum up support for Clinton near Pittsburgh on Friday.
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    Biking for Obama: Justin Lubarsky (right) was one of over one hundred people who came to Highland Park in Pittsburgh Friday for a 'Bike for Obama' event. Mr. Lubarsky is a registered Republican but says he'll probably vote for Obama because he likes his young, fresh approach.
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    'Which of these two will bring jobs back to northwestern Pennsylvania?' – Bill French, resident of Brookville, Pa.
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Travis Frantti knocks on the front door, ready to make his pitch for Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's the final weekend before Tuesday's presidential primary in Pennsylvania, and he and his mother are out canvassing in suburban Pittsburgh, a printout of persuadable Democrats and a stack of campaign literature in hand.

Joe Machi, their first "customer," is still undecided. "I'll just toss a coin," jokes the real estate investor, as Ann Frantti hands a Hillary pin to his young son. Then he gets serious: "I still want to hear more about the issues, rather than this peripheral stuff."

In a way, Mr. Machi represents the holy grail of the final push for votes in Pennsylvania: white male Democrats. As a group, they are nearly evenly divided between Senator Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. And individually, white male Democrats express the most ambivalence about the two candidates.

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A recent poll from Temple University in Philadelphia asked likely Democratic voters to rate the favorability of Clinton and Obama on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most favorable. The contest was closest among white men who gave Clinton an average of 6.4 and Obama 6.9. When only voters over 30 are considered, the numbers get even tighter: 6.5 for Clinton and 6.7 for Obama.

Pennsylvania's white women, in contrast, clearly are more enthusiastic about Clinton. They give her an average favorability of 7.8, versus 5.9 for Obama.

So what's up with the white guys?

"I'm more and more impressed as time goes on that this election is about which candidate you think is more like you," says Michael Hagen, director of Temple's Institute for Public Affairs.

That's why, he adds, the candidates have spent so much time in the past six weeks aiming their messages at white men – not always successfully. Obama's adventure in ten-pin bowling, scoring a 37 in seven frames, did not exactly impress, while images of Clinton knocking back liquor, and talking about how her dad taught her how to shoot at their Pennsylvania cottage, struck some voters as pandering.

In a state where many counties give schoolchildren a day off for the opening of deer-hunting season, gun rights are considered a nearly sacred matter. But Clinton's record as a supporter of gun control didn't exactly square with her attempts to come across as gun friendly.

It is Obama, though, who seriously risked alienating gun owners in the run up to Pennsylvania with his private comments at a San Francisco fundraiser, where he talked about "bitter" small-town voters who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

But for now, what has been dubbed "Bittergate" does not seem to have hurt Obama in Pennsylvania, at least in the Democratic primary. The average of the latest polls shows him trailing Clinton by about five percentage points, which is roughly where he has been since he began advertising heavily in the state.

In conversations with voters at a front-porch rally featuring Bill Clinton in Brookville, Pa., a town of 5,000, none of the Democrats expressed concern over Obama's remark. Many present were Republicans, out on a sunny day to see an ex-president in the flesh, but with no intention of considering either his wife or Obama in November.

Bill French, a longtime Brookville resident, counts himself among Pennsylvania's ambivalent white male Democrats. He was disappointed by last Wednesday's Clinton-Obama debate which was dominated by a discussion of both candidates' gaffes of the past month, and still has not made a final decision between the two.

"I want to hear them debate, and stop the name-calling," says Mr. French, a retired high school history teacher who is now an Episcopal priest. "Which of these two will bring jobs back to northwestern Pennsylvania?"

When asked about "Bittergate," French leans in and whispers: "In some ways [Obama] is right. Some of these guys would die before they'd give up their guns."

Jeannie Harriger Petardi, a local real estate agent and gun owner, is leaning toward Clinton in the primary, but would be fine with Obama as the nominee. "A lot of Obama supporters would rather have a man, which makes me annoyed," she says.

Then there are the Clinton supporters who say they would never vote for Obama. "If he can't wear an American flag pin, I can't vote for him," says John Delaney, a Vietnam War vet who is sporting a "Dumb and Dumber" T-shirt showing President Bush and his father (which he says former President Clinton refused to sign).

"I'm hoping Hillary beats him," he adds. "If it's Obama versus [John] McCain, I'll vote for Ralph Nader."

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