At the immaculate heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church, on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh, they can't afford a janitor anymore. The ladies of the parish volunteer, swabbing the tile floors and polishing the mahogany pews. They are a familiar Pittsburgh type: the wry, forthright, steel-willed wives of hardworking, shot-and-beer men. Long after morning mass, in the dim sanctuary, I asked the "Stara Baba" crew (Polish for "old grandma") whom they support in the suddenly pivotal Pennsylvania Democratic primary next month. The uniform answer: Hillary Clinton. "She's learned a lot, and everyone knows women are stronger and smarter than the men," said Gerry Kopczynski. Barack Obama, she said, didn't know much and was "a little cocky." Gerry couldn't stomach the way young people were gushing about him: "All these college kids yell 'change, change, change,' and they don't know a damn thing!" Better to focus, said Sandy Buczkowski, on bolstering Medicare and Medicaid. "Hillary can help us seniors," she said. "She's a strong-willed person."
The Stara Baba crew is one reason that Hillary begins the Pennsylvania political polka with a lead—and why Obama has to contest the primary with all his might, even at the risk of a fight with Clinton that leaves them both damaged for the fall. The Democratic nominee will need the Polish Hills of America, and Obama may as well begin the sales effort now. John McCain's military heritage and antitotalitarianism could resonate in places such as Polish Hill, where Stars and Stripes hang from windows year-round.
Polish Hill has been ground zero in presidential politics before. In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the Democratic nomination. The neighborhood stood by the incumbent. Why? Carter had established good relations with the then new Polish-born pope, John Paul II, who, early in his career, visited Pittsburgh and said mass at Immaculate Heart.
This time, demographics make the place important. In national exit polls, Clinton leads Obama among seniors, whites, women, Catholics and voters of moderate income and little or no higher education. These demographic vectors meet on Polish Hill—and there are many other places like it across Pennsylvania. Which is why the state's powerful Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, is backing Clinton. It adds up to daunting odds for Obama.
Still, his situation isn't hopeless. Polish Hill is only one of many Pittsburghs. There are no steel mills left. The largest employers include medical centers, the University of Pittsburgh, PNC Bank and Mellon Financial Corp. Pitt and Carnegie Mellon have spawned a fertile digital culture to match the medical one; programmers, painters and poets are flocking to stately old neighborhoods. A symbol of this change is the city's mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who is all of 28 years old.
You can find the newer Pittsburgh in places such as the Monterey Pub in an old, federalist-style area called the Mexican War Streets District. Most of the under-35 crowd there was for Obama. One was Abby Wilson, a native who graduated from Columbia, worked in South Africa and then returned home to run a foundation dedicated, she said, to turning the "balkanized, dysfunctional cities" of the Great Lakes into a political force. "Obama can restore our diplomatic relations," she said. Over dinner in the back of the restaurant, she engaged in a debate with Web-site developer Brian R. Barcaro. A self-described Catholic conservative, his most popular site is Catholic Match.com. He's gotten buyout offers, he said, and gets hits from all over—but none, so far as he knew, from Polish Hill.