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GOP sees opening for McCain in Pennsylvania

Some analysts think Sen. John McCain is missing an opportunity by not campaigning in Pennsylvania now, as the entire state is focused on politics in a way that will be hard to eclipse in November.
Image: Presumptive Republican US presidential nominee Sen John McCain greets a supporter during a town meeting Springfield Pennsylvania
Sen. John McCain greets a supporter during a town meeting at the Springfield Country Club in Springfield, Pa., on March 14.Tim Shaffer / Reuters file

It was April Fool’s Day, but no joke: two presidential candidates in the same small Pennsylvania city, without a debate or a major convention in town. It was bound to happen though; for nearly a month Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have been criss-crossing the state, making inroads in one of the last big-delegate primaries of the political calendar.

But while Clinton and Obama have been here enough to rival their appearances in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, their Republican counterpart, Sen. John McCain, hasn’t been here much at all. And analysts say that may come back to hurt him in the November election.

Whoever wins on April 22 will likely face tough competition from McCain in the Keystone State this November. Republicans believe McCain, a more moderate Republican than President Bush, can win the state President Bush lost in close contests the last two cycles. But, some analysts suggest, McCain is missing an opportunity by not being here more now, as the entire state is focused on politics in a way that will be hard to eclipse in November.

“McCain needs to ask for votes throughout Pennsylvania,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “The first stage of getting a vote is asking for it. I think it makes sense for him to spend some time in Pennsylvania and get into the national discussion.”

McCain will return to Pennsylvania Monday to raise funds and campaign. He will speak Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Hardball College Tour” from Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Analysts believe Obama or Clinton could be vulnerable in Pennsylvania because they've been attacking each other a lot during the primary coverage. And having McCain in the state now would allow him to take on both challengers.

“It’s good counter-programming,” Feehery said. “You can’t just let the Democrats dominate the conversation. If they do, they will control the agenda for the rest of the campaign.”

McCain officials confirmed the candidate will be in Pennsylvania at least once before the April 22 primary, but said the main focus now is fundraising across the country. Some McCain supporters, including former Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, have also campaigned for him in the state.

“I don't know if (the Democrats) are going to help or hurt themselves, but I think McCain is very competitive from what I've seen,” said senior adviser Mark Salter. “I can't imagine we're not going to compete pretty seriously in Pennsylvania. It's a target state.”

The Democratic nominee will likely benefit from having spent a month campaigning in Pennsylvania and already invested millions in ads in the state. Voters like a personal connection with candidates, and both Clinton and Obama will have likely been to more neighborhoods and shaken more hands than McCain in the state by November. Clinton and Obama have already become fixtures on local television news, and each has spent millions of dollars in advertising in the state. Their issues, priorities and policy positions are already well known here.

There is no question that more people in the state are paying attention right now. The number of Democrats in the state has grown to 4.19 million people from 3.89 million last November. Many new voters have registered or changed their party affiliation to cast a ballot in the closed primary.

Winning in November will be an uphill battle for McCain. Democrats have won 11 of the last 13 statewide elections since 2000, and they have expanded their numbers significantly in the Lehigh Valley and the suburbs of Philadelphia, said pollster Terry Madonna.

‘Recipe for success’
“Democrats have been able to combine core voters in the city, hold onto ethnic blue-collar voters and win the suburbs,” Madonna said. “That’s a recipe for success.”

But McCain may be the type of Republican who can win in Pennsylvania, particularly because of his moderate views. The state has a history of electing moderates from both sides of the aisle. Take the state's two U.S. senators, Republican Arlen Specter, who has supported immigration reform and angered conservatives as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democrat Robert Casey Jr., who is pro-life and a gun rights supporter.

President Bush lost Pennsylvania in 2004, with Sen. John Kerry garnering 51 percent of the vote to Bush’s 49 percent. Four years earlier, former Vice President Al Gore won the state, 51 percent to Bush’s 47 percent. But Madonna said McCain can win independent-minded voters that Bush could not.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll, released in early April, found Obama leading McCain by only four points in the state, 43 percent to 39 percent. It found Clinton beating McCain in Pennsylvania, 48 percent to 40 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points.

“I think the evidence now is that McCain runs well against both of the other two candidates,” Madonna said. “For McCain, his best hope is that his personal qualities trump everything in the political environment.”

Robert Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party, said it was a good thing that McCain is not in town this month.

“The people of Pennsylvania are getting to know these people intimately,” Gleason said. “I’m OK with it because both of these people are very liberal and they’re being exposed.”

‘Really new territory’
Gleason said he expects McCain to spend a great deal of time in Pennsylvania during the general election, and he believes McCain can win the state. He said conservative voters know they don’t agree with Clinton and Obama, so they will flock to McCain, and supporters of the losing Democratic candidate will likely look at him as well.

“This is really new territory,” Gleason said of the attention Pennsylvania Democrats are getting. “Especially this happening in a battleground state.”

The author is covering the presidential campaign as an NBC/National Journal reporter. He can be reached at . Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed to this report.