PHILADELPHIA—In the days leading up to Pennsylvania's April 22 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton has been comparing herself to Rocky Balboa, the North Philly prizefighter immortalized on film as everybody's favorite underdog. "I never quit," she promised. But Clinton, unlike Rocky, has always been favored to win in the Keystone State, the last of the big prizes in the long and contentious battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
With 12.4 million people, Pennsylvania is the sixth-largest state, rich with delegates, and a key battleground in past general elections. Its primary "could be the ultimate campaign for the Democratic nomination," says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Donald Kettl. "This could be what decides the Democratic nomination."
It's been 32 years since Pennsylvania had a primary that mattered; Jimmy Carter all but sealed his nomination here in 1976. But with two strong, well-financed rivals pledging to go the distance, the interest here has never been higher.
An amalgam of distinct regions, Pennsylvania is home to Philadelphia, the nation's sixth-largest city, whose glimmering skyline masks gun violence and struggling schools, tony Main Line enclaves, forests and farms, and gritty towns abandoned by shuttered coal mines and steel mills. Unemployment was 5.6 percent in February, higher than the national average, and as high as 9.3 percent in Hazleton in the state's hard-hit eastern region.
The state is also crowded with college students, who favor Barack Obama, and its aging population helps Clinton, who is also expected to appeal to the working class and a growing Latino population.
Gaining ground. While polls show Clinton ahead here, Obama is gaining ground. Meanwhile, he leads in the number of other states won, the popular vote, and total delegates. With Pennsylvania's 158 delegates awarded proportionally in 19 congressional districts, Clinton not only needs to win here, she needs to win big. And Obama, with oodles of cash and a TV ad budget to match, is doing his best to deny her as many delegates as he can.
The contest could turn on voters like Elisa Taylor, 27, a graphics design student from Philadelphia. Taylor, who met Clinton at a fundraiser in September, was among students who gave the candidate a T-shirt reading: "Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman." She says she'll support anyone who can lower gas prices, fix the healthcare system, and shore up the economy. "They both have good stuff to say," says Taylor, married with three young boys. "I'll decide once I'm in the voting booth."
Pennsylvania has 8.3 million registered voters, almost 4.2 million Democrats, 3.2 million Republicans, and others identifying with another party or none. Democrats are growing in number; nearly 161,000 switched to the party this year. On the GOP side, roughly 15,000 switched. Most new registrants are Democrats, about 146,000, compared with 39,000 for the GOP. At stake are 103 delegates to be chosen April 22, plus 55 to be named by early June based on the primary results. Additionally, Pennsylvania has 29 superdelegates, most no doubt keen to see who emerges the victor here. Nationwide, as in Pennsylvania, Clinton has an edge in superdelegates, though here and in the nine contests to follow it's unlikely she or Obama will capture enough pledged delegates to put either of them over the top.
As in other states, Clinton is touting her experience, and Obama promises change. Clinton inspires older women; Obama fires up young people and African-Americans. Pennsylvania is 86 percent white; its proportion of minorities is lower than that of the United States, and white men could swing either way. Some expect Obama to carry Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, though both city's mayors have endorsed Clinton, leaving the populous counties near Philadelphia a key battleground. In Bucks County, roofer Edward Hevener, 43, who is white, backs Clinton. He views her as more realistic and Obama as a "people pleaser." He adds that a lot of men "don't want a black president." But because the county's voters tend to be affluent and educated, they still may deliver for Obama.
Clinton, meanwhile, has been stressing her roots in Scranton, a mill and mining town where her family took lakeside vacations. Arguably more important is the 16-year-old history that began when she and Bill Clinton first campaigned here; the former president won Pennsylvania twice, and the two have kept up strong ties to the state. Obama, by contrast, is an outsider.