Once again, the suburbs are key;
Both candidates are struggling to win support in counties outside Philadel-phia, a political ground zero
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 15, 2004
NORRISTOWN, Pa. - You won't see Chuck Woolery in New York this fall. For the 53-year-old contractor from Maryland, and for thousands of others around the country campaigning for a political candidate, all roads lead to very few places. One of them is the aptly-named Keystone State of Pennsylvania, particularly its "swing" suburbs.
"There aren't many states where you can make a difference," said Woolery, who drove last weekend from safely Democratic Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, to volunteer for John Kerry and congressional candidate Allyson Schwartz in Montgomery County, Pa., near Philadelphia. "This seemed like a prime place to put my energies. Every call counts because every vote counts."
If you live in New York and many other states, the race for president or Congress isn't competitive. And this is a shame, a de facto disenfranchisement of millions of voters. Candidates needn't care about consensus; they can get away with preaching to huge majority choirs.
But the state's left-leaning majority has made New York and other true "blue" Democratic states safe for Kerry - as many other bright "red" Republican ones are for George W. Bush. And frankly, since the 2000 election reminded us that the popular votes in one state count only in that state, they'd be fools to spend time or ad dollars outside the dozen or so states truly up for grabs.
One of those political jump balls is "purple" Pennsylvania, the only big northeastern state in play. And the keystone to the state is Philadelphia's suburbs.
These still-growing counties, which I visited in 1996 and 2000, have become the political ground zero for the presi-dential candidates, with dozens of appearances by both campaigns.
Bush is struggling to reverse years of erosion by moderate Republicans, his "compassionate conservative" face at the convention not winning many converts. He isn't scaring enough people to his side, either, with his claim to indispen-sability in the war on terror.
And while Kerry absolutely must win here, his failure to connect clearly with moderate suburbanites who don't like Bush has left him struggling to hold on to recent Democratic gains.
But the presidential races aren't the only important competitive ones in Pennsylvania. In a country where few con-gressional races are in doubt - New York has one or two - the Philly suburbs alone have at least three House races too close to call and a Senate campaign that could turn on Bush's fortunes. The outcomes could determine which party con-trols Congress.
So every voter is being courted, through millions already spent in ads but also through aggressive efforts to knock on thousands of doors.
In one suburban congressional race, Schwartz and Republican Melissa Brown and their supporters already have vis-ited 170,000 homes and, including primaries, spent nearly $3 million.
Like their counterparts on Long Island, moderates in Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties usually decide the winner in statewide elections, including the president. And voters in these once reliably Republican enclaves can't be counted on by either party. They routinely split tickets.
Republicans still win local elections and the state has two GOP senators. But the conservative image of the national GOP on social issues and the arrival of more moderate voters has given Democrats an edge in recent presidential and congressional races.
Big numbers in the 'burbs gave Al Gore the state and are essential to Kerry. And while they don't run from Bush, GOP candidates like Brown, a doctor, run on fixing health care and local problems - perhaps to change the subject from the unpopular war and economy.
"For any northern suburban Republican, the climb is steeper than it was when the image of the party was more moderate," said Jon Fox, who is running for the state legislature and often hears anger against Bush. "There also are many more pro-choice Democrats than just 10 years ago moving out from the city. They brought their politics and party loyalties."
Fox should know. He lost a congressional seat in 1998 in a backlash over GOP efforts to impeach Bill Clinton, the most popular Democrat ever with suburban voters.
In 2000, Bush got beaten badly by Gore in the Philly suburbs. Most polls suggest that Kerry, who has slipped back into a tie statewide since the GOP convention, still looks strong in Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties. But Republicans are trying to make inroads by attempting to secure the base - energized by the convention - with appeals on tax cuts and staying the course in Iraq.
The party also is hoping to woo moderates, especially GOP-leaning women, turning "soccer" moms into "security" moms by making them feel Bush's "leadership in fighting terror trumps all other concerns," as Montgomery GOP leader Ken Davis put it. The party also is reaching out to minority and Jewish voters. But even at the New Majority Council soiree held in Blue Bell, which raised money for local GOP candidates, black businessman Guy McGee said he isn't sure he will support Bush.
As for scaring women into Bush's arms, the tactic is turning some away, as it should. "I became disenchanted with the party on women's issues," said nurse Jeanne Bland. "And now I think Bush has made the world more dangerous."
But Bush has done a better job so far in reaching just enough prosperous suburbanites who like the idea of paying lower taxes and feeling someone is in charge of the war on terror. Kerry has a good case to make that Bush's war and deficits have hurt the country. In this suburb that holds the key to his election, he hasn't yet made the case.