An uphill climb in Pa.

The Baltimore Sun

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. - With less than two weeks before the election, John McCain is eager for any vote he can get in Pennsylvania, a battleground state that could decide the fate of the Republican's bid for the White House.

Even those like Jim Boni, who say that fixing the economy is critical but aren't sure that McCain can do it.

Boni retired two years ago from the school district where he taught for 35 years, yet was repeatedly checking his watch as he sipped a cup of coffee yesterday and waited for his shift as a hotel shuttle driver to start.

"I'm retired, but I'm still working," he said. "My 401(k) is getting eaten up."

Boni, a registered Democrat, doesn't know how the Arizona senator can turn the financial markets around but said he is getting his vote primarily because of his stance on abortion.

McCain probably won't quibble with such reasoning.

For McCain, the road to the White House runs through the Keystone State. News reports suggest that his campaign is scaling back in some states won by President Bush in 2004, including Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa. So, to reach the winning electoral vote total of 270, McCain would have to flip a state that voted Democratic four years ago.

The McCain campaign believes that his best shot is Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes. But he's facing an uphill battle.

Recent opinion polls show Democrat Barack Obama holding an 8- to 10-point lead in Pennsylvania, which is why McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are campaigning here aggressively. Combined, they've visited 16 times this month, including yesterday when Palin stopped in Western Pennsylvania.

"If he's to make up the math and close the gap, that's where he'll do it," said Jim Lee, director of the Susquehanna Poll.

Palin spoke last night at Beaver High School from a stage set up in one end zone of the football stadium. She reminded the crowd that the Ohio voter Joe the Plumber had likened Obama's policies to socialism, and promised to let small-business owners keep more of what they earn. Then she made a prediction.

"We're going to win this state," she told cheering supporters. "I guarantee it."

Martin Marek, 65, was in the bleachers, attending his second McCain-Palin rally of the week. He saw McCain two days earlier at Robert Morris University.

Marek, a lifelong Democrat, proudly wore a "Maverick" button while his wife, Karen, wore a pink "Women for Palin" pin.

"We live in a world right now where you don't know what's going to happen, with Russia, with Korea, with Iran," said Marek. "If we had a showdown, who would you want representing you?"

Recent surveys suggest that Western Pennsylvania is conflicted on that question. A Susquehanna Poll released this week shows McCain might not be making up enough ground. Lee, the poll's director, called Western Pennsylvania "fertile ground" for McCain because of a concentration of socially conservative, blue-collar workers who heavily supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.

"There's some room for growth in that area, but I don't know if it'll be enough" for McCain, Lee said.

Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat from Johnstown, struck a nerve when he recently called residents of Western Pennsylvania racist and "rednecks." The remarks prompted McCain this week to declare the area "the most patriotic, most God-loving, most patriotic part of America."

Boni does not disagree. Like his steelworker parents before him, Boni, 59, grew up in Moon Township and has seen the area's workers take a beating in recent years.

"Somebody should've protected the middle class that we have, whether it be Democrats or Republicans," Boni said. "Everyone around here is worried. I liken the bank presidents and CEOs to terrorists. To me, they're the same. They're putting the national security of our country in risk."

The McCain campaign is not limiting its reach to the western part of the state. Republicans hope that Clinton's 9-point primary win means that Obama is vulnerable across the state, from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Scranton. Democrat John Kerry won Pennsylvania by 140,000 votes four years ago, so campaign operatives say that McCain needs to find on average only 2,000 more votes in each of 67 counties.

But he is not making inroads in many key areas. Lee called the southeastern corner of the state the "tail that wags the dog," because Philadelphia and the surrounding area typically accounts for one in three Pennsylvania votes and Obama enjoys a healthy advantage in polling there.

Obama is outspending McCain by a 2-to-1 margin statewide, and the Democrats have reportedly added 800,000 registered voters to their rolls.

In many areas, though, McCain-Palin signs dominate front lawns.

Fulton County provided Bush with his biggest victory in Pennsylvania four years ago and has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964. In Johnnie's Diner in McConnellsburg, Pete Warren scanned the political headlines before pulling a pen from his pocket and settling into the crossword puzzle.

It isn't that Warren is not interested in the campaign updates. He votes in every election, he says. Though he's registered Republican, he tries to take an independent's approach to the ballot. But neither McCain nor Obama moves him this time.

"I'm voting for Sarah," Warren said with a big smile.

It's not exactly a vote of confidence, but you can bet McCain will take it.

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