Pennsylvania Suburbs: Clinton's Key?

It's been one of the longest phases of the 2008 campaign, a seemingly endless clash between Democratic titans that finally comes to a head Tuesday, when voters in Pennsylvania head to the polls. In the crucial primary battle, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has seen a 20-point lead several weeks ago drop to five or six points, according to the latest surveys. Her hopes of hanging on—and of establishing the 10-point margin over Illinois senator and Democratic front runner Barack Obama many analysts think is critical for her case to press on with her candidacy—may well come down to the Philadelphia suburbs, politically complex territory that poses special challenges for the Clinton campaign. (Article continued below...)

Clinton has worked hard to exploit the opening created when Obama pronounced some voters in rural areas "bitter" about the loss of jobs and economic opportunity and suggested that they "cling" to guns and religion as a coping mechanism. Ever since, Clinton has been playing up her support for Second Amendment rights and her kinship with hunters—and slamming Obama for saying in 1996 that he would support a ban on handguns, when he was running for the state senate in Illinois. She has talked up her own childhood forays into duck hunting and been photographed sipping whisky shots with bar patrons in blue-collar towns.

That strategy may have helped buoy her among socially conservative economic populists in hard-hit parts of the state, but how will it play in the Philly suburbs, which have been undergoing a shift to the left of late?

Roughly 44 percent of the state's Democratic electorate lives in the Philadelphia region. While Obama should sweep to victory in the largely African-American city proper, the well-to-do professional women and Roman Catholics living in Philadelphia's suburbs could bolster Clinton's vote total by a significant margin. They could also break for Obama, as residents of other affluent communities have done. Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says that Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs tend to be more liberal on social issues than elsewhere in the state. "Those are critical areas that are the secret of [Gov.] Ed Rendell's success and [Sen.] Bob Casey's success in beating [socially conservative Sen.] Rick Santorum," Kettl says. "The suburbs are increasingly becoming Obama country and could certainly reduce her margins … If he does better than expected in the suburbs it could be a surprise on Tuesday."

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who represents much of the Philadelphia suburbs across Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester Counties—and has endorsed Clinton—agrees the suburbs will be crucial. He says many people are still undecided, making it hard to predict how the state will go. "Winning here means winning big across the state," Sestak says of the suburban counties in his district. The economy is the number one issue on voters' minds in his territory, he says, but he adds that they are also concerned about violence; there has been a 40 percent increase in major criminal cases referred for prosecution over the past three years in Delaware County. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's efforts to enact tough new gun-control measures have dominated area headlines. (Last week a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the measures while she considers whether the city's reforms are legal. A 1974 Pennsylvania law holds that only the state legislature has the power to pass laws controlling firearms.)

The Clinton camp clearly recognizes the stakes. Her campaign has pumped a majority of her ad dollars into the always important and expensive Philadelphia media market—home to half the state's delegates, Kettl says. While Obama maintains a sizable funding advantage statewide, her targeted spending in this region could help neutralize that edge. "That's probably the most up-for-grabs part of the state," says Evan Tracey, a director of TNS Media Intelligence, which tracks ad spending. "If she can overperform there she'll do well."

And the candidate has been blitzing the area. She spent part of last weekend knocking on doors with a local congressman in the Philadelphia bedroom community of Upper Darby. On Thursday she held a "conversation" about women's issues ranging from gender pay inequity to breast cancer research at Haverford College, bringing her daughter Chelsea and 88-year-old mother Dorothy along. She visited a third Philadelphia suburb Friday, holding a rally in a high school gymnasium in the leafy enclave of Radnor.

As she makes her rounds she seldom mentions the "bitter" flap, or whiskey shots, or duck blinds. Those issues, the campaign no doubt knows, would not play as well in these more affluent suburban precincts. Instead she has focused on how to get out of Iraq, the difficulties of juggling a career and children, educational reform, and enforcement of women's rights laws, including Title IX, which requires schools to spend equally on male and female sports teams. Rosalind Horton-Cauffman, a 55-year-old from suburban Newtown Square, says she is supporting Clinton because she loves the thought of a female president but "doesn't like that Hillary Clinton jumped on" Obama's comment about "bitter" small-town voters. But Horton-Cauffman says she respects Clinton's incredible mastery of policy. "I believe she has thought about every issue," she says. "She has thought about it and she has a plan."

Jeff Cramp, an advertising executive from Wynnewood, another suburb, says he is supporting Obama and has been turned off by Clinton's recent emphasis on protecting gun rights. "'Handguns are made for killin', they're not good for nothin' else,'" Cramp says, quoting the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Saturday Night Special." Of Clinton's recent overtures to hunters, Cramp says he's not sure if Clinton "believes it or if she's trying to beat Obama" by driving up turnout in western Pennsylvania. "She's trying to reach the Reagan Democrats," says Cramp during a chat outside a drugstore in suburban Bryn Mawr.

Asefa Ali, a 49-year-old Bryn Mawr resident, says she hasn't decided yet whom to vote for but thinks that Clinton has flip-flopped on guns, which she thinks should be made less available. "She was saying that to get votes from hunters," Ali says of Clinton's recent emphasis on gun rights. "She doesn't believe it."

Ellen, 50, of Haverford, says Clinton's discussion of hunting and gun rights in the wake of Obama's bitter comment hurt the senator's standing with her. "She has been utterly disingenuous," says Ellen, who asked to remain anonymous because she doesn't like to discuss politics publicly. "Her comments are gratuitous, and she would not have made them if he hadn't made his."

Ed Henning, who works at the Firing Line gun shop in South Philadelphia, scoffed at Clinton's anecdotes about duck hunting. "John Kerry did the same thing the last time around," says Henning, who recalls Kerry showing off a hunting suit that still had creases in it. "It's hard to swallow."