Keystone State may unlock election

Pennsylvania, which used to be a staunchly Democratic state, is leaning more Republican.

Ginny Mehalik grinned sheepishly as she picked at her steaming plate of moussaka and souvlaki. The daughter and granddaughter of staunchly Democratic Pittsburgh steelworkers, she had just admitted she was voting Republican.

"My father would just be very disappointed if he knew I was doing that," she said quietly through the din at the packed church hall where Pittsburgh's 39th Annual Greek Food Festival was in full swing.

Because of Ms. Mehalik and others like her, this bellwether state will be a key battleground in the 2000 presidential election.

Pennsylvania is considered a "must win" for Vice President Al Gore, but Republicans are putting up a tough fight for this part of the Democratic industrial corridor. They're not only holding their high-profile national convention in Philadelphia, a city rejuvenated by popular former Democratic Mayor Ed Rendell, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush is openly flirting with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as a potential vice-presidential candidate.

The result: Pennsylvania is very much in play.

"A lot hinges on the extent of the generational change," says Raymond Owen, chairman of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. "As well as how many forgot the bitterness and the quirky right-wing edginess of the Gingrich revolution."

Once described as two big Democratic cities with Alabama in the middle, the Quaker State has voted for 20 of the last 25 presidents. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won here with percentages that almost mirrored his national victories.

But Pennsylvania is a state in transition, and no city exemplifies that more than Pittsburgh.

High-tech start-ups and retail outlets have replaced the hulking, rusted skeletons of the once-powerful steel mills that lined the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The site of the 1892 Homestead Massacre at Carnegie Steel Co. - a landmark in US labor history - is now a Target. And instead of being a union maid like her mother, Mehalik works in biostatistics at the university.

But as much as it has reflected the country's voting patterns in the past century, and as much as it's changed, Pennsylvania remains almost a step out of time. That's in part because its population, which has been shrinking for years, is older.

Unlike the average suburban swing voter, who tends to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, Pennsylvania voters have a reputation for being socially conservative and economically liberal.

That's been particularly true in Pittsburgh. Built on the sweat of immigrants like Mehalik's Czechoslovakian grandparents, who fueled Andrew Carnegie's steel mills, the city's Democratic base tends to be staunchly pro-union, protectionist, and anti-abortion.

Mary Sockos, the daughter of Greek immigrants who was serving up portions of baklava and spanakopita at St. Nicholas' Greek Orthodox Cathedral, is a case in point. Now a grandmother of five, she's anti-abortion and a registered Democrat, like her parents were.

"You couldn't say anything bad about the Democrats, because the Democrats brought them out of the Depression when things were real bad here," she says.

But Mrs. Sockos, who twice voted for Mr. Clinton, now has qualms about the moral tenor of his administration. And that could spell trouble for Mr. Gore. "I feel like it was a mistake now, and I'd like to give the other side a chance," she says.

The fact that the economy has cooked along under the Democrats' stewardship doesn't sway her. She believes it will do just fine under a Republican regime as well. That sentiment is heightened in union circles, particularly because Gore, like Governor Bush, has hopped on the free-trade bandwagon.

"The free-trade issue is very, very contentious, and I think it just may cost some Democratic votes," says Susan Hansen, a Pittsburgh political expert. "Some union folks will vote for Bush, others may just sit on their hands - a big part of it will be how much enthusiasm there is in the unions to mobilize."

But Bush, who chose Pittsburgh for his hyped "summit" with rival Sen. John McCain, also faces a battle here.

However tepid the support may turn out to be, the state's labor vote is substantial and expected to go to Gore. And Bush's association with extreme right Christian conservatives could cost him some moderate Republicans.

And then there's the women's vote.

Ms. Hansen calls Bush's record on gun control "abysmal, even by Pennsylvania's standards." She's waiting to see how much impact the Million Mom March will have on Pennsylvania's female population, which in the past was not always galvanized to get out and vote.

But that, too, is changing.

While Bush's anti-abortion stance may play well with conservative Democrats, it's not crucial. Governor Ridge supports abortion rights, a testament to Pennsylvania's political flexibility. (Gov. Bob Casey, Ridge's Democratic predecessor, was anti-abortion.)

Sockos, who opposes anti-abortion, says that's important, but not central in her voting decisions. Like Mehalik, she's looking for someone to restore a sense of honor and authenticity in Washington. Both, right now, are leaning toward Bush.

"He represents integrity and will bring respectability back to the presidency," Mehalik says.

But neither one is very clear about Bush's record or his stand on the issues. They just sort of like him. And that's what Democrats are banking on to sway their support back behind Gore. So far, many pundits are withholding judgment.

"I do believe that Pennsylvania is slowly leaking out of the traditional Democratic column into the Republican one," says Professor Owen. "But this is far from a homogeneous state. It can swing back and forth between the parties, even within the state itself."

*Part 1 of the series ran May 16.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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