Why Clinton needs to win big in Pennsylvania

Her viability is at risk if she doesn't, analysts say.

charles dharapak/ap
Hillary Rodham Clinton
charles rex arbogast/ap
Down to the wire: Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama spoke at a rally in Scranton, Pa., Sunday.

Once again, it's do-or- die time for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The New York senator, trailing her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, by most measures, has to win the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday – and she has to win convincingly in order to narrow the deficit and appear competitive in the remaining handful of contests, analysts say.

The latest major polls show her winning the Keystone State by an average of five points. That would not be enough to make substantial headway in either her convention delegate count or the popular vote. But Clinton campaign aides have made clear that a win is a win and that they plan to spin even a narrow victory into a major loss for Senator Obama.

"If Obama fails to win Pennsylvania, it will be another sign that he is unable to win in the large states that a candidate for president on the Democratic ticket needs to win," Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson told reporters in a conference call last week.

If Clinton wins Pennsylvania by 10 points or more, that would give Obama a jolt – but she would still face a steep climb in the remaining contests to capture the nomination. Her only hope is to get close in either the delegate count or the popular vote and then persuade enough of the superdelegates – the party officials and leaders who are free to back whomever they want – that she would be the stronger nominee against Republican Sen. John McCain in November.

Obama leads in the Associated Press's overall delegate count 1,647 to 1,508, including the latest superdelegate to declare for Obama, Enid Goubeaux, a Democratic National Committee member from Ohio. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to clinch the nomination. Obama leads in the popular vote by more than 700,000 votes.

Forecasting the Pennsylvania Democratic vote – the largest state left in primary season – isn't easy. In some ways, Pennsylvania is like Ohio, with its large working-class population, lots of older voters, and big Roman Catholic population. Those demographics tilt toward Clinton. Since she won Ohio by 10 points, some analysts say that's her benchmark for Pennsylvania.

Independent pollster John Zogby sees the numbers breaking for Clinton in the final days. In his Sunday survey, the undecideds dropped from 8 percent to 5 percent, and most went for Clinton.

But, he and others warn, Pennsylvania is also different from Ohio. Job growth in Pennsylvania, 3 percent since 2003, far outpaces Ohio's 0.5 percent. Pittsburgh, the old steel city, has reinvented itself into a high-tech mecca.

Still, it's not hard to find older, working-class Pennsylvanians who feel left behind, and they are Clinton's base. The latest Franklin and Marshall College poll shows Clinton with a 20-point lead (53 percent to 33 percent) in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.

"It's turning into an East-West battle," says Terry Madonna, the poll's director. "She's winning the West; he's winning the East."

It's also a battle of geography versus demographics, he says. The same demographics Obama won in the earlier states – younger voters, the more affluent, and African-Americans – he's still winning, and even to a greater degree. Clinton is also building her lead among Catholics and lower-income voters.

The three main battleground areas of Pennsylvania are the Philadelphia suburbs, the Lehigh Valley, and south-central Pennsylvania, around Lancaster.

"It's a chess game; you can play it a number of ways," says Mr. Madonna.

One plus for Obama is the surge of new voters that have registered in Pennsylvania, 270,000 of them since November. Of those, 230,000 are Democrats, or 7 percent of the state party's rolls. In Madonna's latest poll, he found that 52 percent of them are backing Obama. Since Pennsylvania's primary is closed, only registered Democrats may participate, making the state a test of strength among core Democrats.

The run-up to the Pennsylvania primary has been long and hard-fought. It has been six weeks since the last primary – Mississippi (which Obama won, as expected) – and seven weeks since the pitched battle for Ohio and Texas ended. Clinton's popular vote victories in both of those big states saved her campaign from extinction and gave her a burst of momentum going into Pennsylvania.

The next contests, North Carolina and Indiana, could also present Clinton with a must-win scenario. If she wins Pennsylvania, as expected, she then must do well in Indiana, where polls are close, as Obama is expected to win North Carolina handily. The longer this race marches along toward the end of primary season with neither candidate reaching the magic number, and with the candidates trading victories, the greater the chance that Clinton stays in until the final contests in June.

BUT FOR Pennsylvanians, the opportunity to play a role in the Democratic nomination has been a rare and for the most part welcome turn. The last time Pennsylvania mattered was in 1980, when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts won Pennsylvania by a hair, and took his nomination fight against President Carter all the way to the convention.

This time around, as in all the other hotly contested primary and caucus states, some voters in Pennsylvania are by now fed up with the robo-calls, TV and radio ads, and door-knockers. Others say they just wish the ads were more informative and less attack-oriented.

Last weekend, Lori Felton-O'Brien, a graduate student at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, decided it was time to choose, so she went to both candidates' websites and discovered that they had basically the same positions.

"It really comes down to who's the more charismatic candidate," says Ms. Felton-O'Brien, who is originally from the blue-collar town of Somerset, Pa. She settled on Obama.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.