IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pennsylvania's affluent exurban battleground

“I am still undecided. Would you believe it?” said Democrat Maureen Fricker when two canvassers for Barack Obama came to her house on Halvorsen Drive in West Chester the weekend before Pennsylvania's primary.

This street of modest-sized $350,000 brick houses, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, is one of the focal points in the Clinton-Obama battle.

On a broiling day when temperatures hit 85 degrees, rival canvassers for the Clinton and Obama campaigns walked door to door down Halvorsen Drive, often hitting the same houses.

Put aside the TV ads and robo-calls. What undecided Democrats really engage with is a flesh-and-blood advocate for a candidate who comes to their door.

Dueling canvassers
First came the Clinton canvassers: Theresa Wilson Albert, a lawyer from Malvern, Pa., and Marty Dickinson, who works for an environmental group in Washington.

Fifteen minutes later Obama canvassers Anne Sogluizzo, a legal secretary from West Whiteland Township, her sister Pat McGuire and her friend Mary Talucci showed up.

“What do you see as the main difference?” Fricker asked Albert and Dickinson.

“I recorded the debate (Wednesday night) and I’m only a third of the way through it.”

Fricker, a former teacher, is a fulltime mother with three young children.

Albert told Fricker: “I can tell you what motivated me. It was health care, health care, health care. I have aging in-laws and lots of health care issues in my family. And Hillary has been the person on this from day one.”

“And is there a major difference between her health care plan and Obama’s?” asked Fricker.

“She’s for universal health care,” replied Albert. “Every single person covered,” said Dickinson, who then added Gov. Ed Rendell’s pitch that Hillary Clinton is the best-prepared presidential contender he has met in his lifetime.

“She’s ready today,” Albert told Fricker. Dickinson added, “She’s ready to do the job.”

Seeking differences between Clinton, Obama
“I’ve really been having a hard time finding the difference between the two,” said Fricker, who then brought up the topic of abortion.

“I’m definitely aligned with her stance on abortion,” Fricker said. “I read something where she said, ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ The ‘rare’ was the biggest thing for me. I’m a Catholic so I’m not pro-choice, but I’m not really pro-life either. I fall in that gray area.”

As the Clinton canvassers were leaving, Fricker said, “I’m definitely going to vote” in Tuesday’s primary, “but I have to whisper this: I don’t feel like this is my only decision. Whoever I vote for Tuesday doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who I’m going to vote for in November, because I have a tremendous respect for John McCain. But I think I’m too different on his issues.”

Just down the block from Fricker, Jim Hurley, busy fixing up his house, told the Clinton canvassers, “I’m definitely for Hillary.”

When asked about Obama, he said, “I really don’t know much about him. I see all the hype but I don’t know much about his past.”

Obama canvasser Sogluizzo, working her way up Halvorsen Drive, was on her third weekend of going door to door to get out the vote.

'Not muddied up with all the political mire'
A torrent of words rushed out of her: “I think he’s charismatic, I think he’s brilliant, I like what he’s done as a senator. He’s inspiring, he’s clean, he’s got clean, clear views, and he’s not muddied up with all the political mire in Washington. It’s a fresh clean start.”

Barry Cassidy, an undecided Chester County Democrat

She added, “I’m so enthusiastic, I can’t tell you. And I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it.”

When asked whether Obama can beat McCain in November, Sogluizzo gave a candid answer: “That’s a really good question. I want to say ‘yes’ but I really don’t know.”

In her canvassing, “I get a lot of undecideds, it’s incredible how many,” said Sogluizzo. “I get a lot of people leaning toward Obama, but they’re not committed yet. They say, ‘I’m confused, this is so hard.’”

The undecideds have a lot of company. Three undecided Democrats who are members of the Chester County Democratic Committee sat around a table at the party headquarters on the weekend before the primary and compared notes.

Liz Morris said Obama's and Clinton's “positions are so similar” and “both really good.” But “there is going to be a backlash against a Clinton-Bush-Clinton. People are going to react to the dynasty. Obama offers such a different approach.”

“Now I sound like an Obama supporter,” she said.

“Obama’s a movement and Clinton is just a campaign,” said Barry Cassidy. “Probably, Obama has a better chance of winning … probably has a better chance of attracting independent and Republican voters.”

When asked if either Clinton or Obama had the more credible plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq, Charles DeTulleo, an Air Force veteran who also served in the Army National Guard, said “neither of them”. He said he would consider voting for McCain in November, even though he thinks the decision to invade Iraq was disastrous.

DeTulleo seemed to be leaning toward Clinton. “She could walk in the door right now and take over the presidency. I don’t think he could do that right now; he’s going to have a learning curve.”

Democrats have reason to be optimistic about Chester County in November.

Since the beginning of the year, the Democrats have scored a gain of 18,010 Chester County voters registering as members of their party. Republicans have gained only 2,584.

The Republicans still have a lead in total numbers in Chester County with nearly 147,000 registered voters, to the Democrats' 113,000 and 46,000 independents and other party members.

Republicans still strong in exurbia?
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat who represents a large chunk of the county and who is neutral in the Obama-Clinton clash, said, “This will be a very interesting county in this election. This is the most prosperous county in Pennsylvania; it’s also one of the fastest growing. Unlike other areas of Pennsylvania, we continue to be prosperous; even in this housing market, the value of houses here is increasing.”

The county has an array of pharmaceutical firms — including Glaxo Smith Kline and Wyeth Cephalon — among its major employers.

“This is going to be very close here. I give the odds to Obama. Hillary’s appeals are based on the economy. Obama talks some about the economy, but he also talks about positive change and responsibility,” Dinniman said.

“If people are hurting, the Clinton message has a real resonance,” he said. But in this bastion of affluence Clinton’s New Deal-type message has less pull. “Obama appeals to people whose education levels and incomes are higher” and who are not sweating over where their next paycheck comes from.

GOP track record of success
Bush won Chester County in 2004 with 52 percent, and a margin of 10,000 votes.

In 2006, Rep. Jim Gerlach, the three-term House Republican, carried his portion of Chester County with 55 percent in what was otherwise a disastrous election for Pennsylvania Republicans. (Gerlach's congressional district includes parts of four different counties.)

Gerlach’s Democratic opponent, Lois Murphy, from the more liberal Montgomery County, lost in 2006 in part because she “couldn’t speak the language of Chester County,” said Dinniman. The language requires an emphasis on entrepreneurship and reliance on the local community rather than instinctively looking to Washington, D.C. for solutions.

Has either Clinton or Obama mastered the Chester County language?

“I think Obama has mastered it better,” said Dinniman.