Barack Obama probably looked a tad out of place when he sauntered into the sports bar Sharky's Cafe in Latrobe, Pa., to sip Yuengling with locals and hang out with college students last Friday. And he certainly proved to those watching, first at the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center in Altoona and then across the country on TV, that he is not a stellar bowler.
However, in ditching the stadiums for town halls and taking his politics directly to the faces of everyday Pennsylvanians—even if it meant interrupting them at the bar or the bowling alley—Obama's recent six-day "Road to Change" bus tour may have helped his standing in a state long thought to be a slam-dunk double-digit win for Hillary Clinton.
"All of the sudden Obama reversed his style and his strategy and begins this six-day bus tour, which has dramatically and positively impacted the campaign," says Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication and presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.
The newest polls show Obama gaining points and cutting off Clinton's longtime lead in the state. On Tuesday, a Rasmussen poll put Clinton 5 points ahead of Obama. On Wednesday, a Public Policy Polling poll showed Obama 2 points ahead of Clinton, which was within the margin of error. And Friday, the Allentown Morning Call's poll showed Clinton holding an 11-point lead over Obama, which was down 3 percentage points from mid-February.
But not everyone is convinced that Obama's more personal Pennsylvania campaign style will make much of a difference. "He's trying to look blue collar, but it doesn't necessarily sell," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "On the other hand, people may appreciate the effort."
Clinton has Pennsylvania demographics on her side and the support of popular Gov. Ed Rendell. Both Philadelphia's and Pittsburgh's mayors have endorsed her, and she has family ties to the state. On the other hand, Obama was recently endorsed and accompanied on the tour by Sen. Bob Casey, an antiabortion Catholic Democrat who could help Obama gain traction among more-conservative Democratic white voters. But Casey's weight may not be able to match Rendell's. "If you have to choose between the support of Ed Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey, you'd pick Rendell in a Pennsylvania minute," says Sabato.
Clinton, former president Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea have all made appearances in the state to tend to her front-runner status. She's given more serious policy speeches throughout the state and participated in more lighthearted events such as the Pittsburgh and Scranton St. Patrick's Day parades. On April Fool's Day, she challenged Obama to a bowl-off, to settle the tight race for the Democratic nomination. But according to Shuster, Clinton is better when she sticks to the issues. "She's lowering herself; it's taking herself away from her message," he says. "Now it's focusing on Obama."
Obama's bus tour route also may have helped him gain support from Democratic middle-class and blue-collar white voters. On the bus tour, while Obama started in Pittsburgh and ended up outside Philadelphia, he traveled through midsize towns and rural communities in the "Alabama" portion of the state. His bar excursion took place in Latrobe, a town with fewer than 9,000 people, known best for being the birthplace of Rolling Rock beer and golfer Arnold Palmer. His bowling trip took place in Altoona, a former railroad and industrial hot spot, which now typifies Pennsylvania's industrial decline.
But another problem with milking cows, eating hot dogs, and hobnobbing with locals is that Obama could look disingenuous. "It reminded me of John Kerry trying to go out hunting," says Sabato, referring to presidential candidate Kerry's decision to go duck hunting 12 days before the general election in an attempt to swing undecided workers. In Kerry's case, it didn't work.
Shuster, on the other hand, disagreed. "I think he's having fun. I don't see that as condescending; I think the criticism is unfounded," Shuster says. Had Obama not joined in he may have risked looking aloof or stuffy. "He knows very well that people know what his professional background is and what his educational background is—he thought it was a joke," Shuster says.
And as for the reaction of those potential Pennsylvania Democratic voters at the bowling alley?
"I think they took it for what it was—here's somebody who can't bowl," Shuster says.