He thinks he has a fighting chance in battleground state

Times Staff Writer

Republican presidential candidates rarely tout their collaborations with liberals such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. But while trying to attract Democratic and independent voters, that’s exactly what presumptive GOP nominee John McCain did Tuesday at a town hall session.

“I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with my friends, whether it be Joe Lieberman or Ted Kennedy, no matter who it is, and that’s what I will do,” McCain told thousands of cheering supporters in this community, about 25 miles south of the state capital in Harrisburg. “America wants us to put our country first.”

Pennsylvania figures to be a vital battleground in the November election. The state has voted for Democrats in the last four presidential elections, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1 million. Yet in the last presidential race, the Bush-Cheney ticket lost by just more than 2 percentage points -- or less than 150,000 votes, close enough to suggest that Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes can be won by the GOP.


Sean Smith, a spokesman for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, said that Pennsylvania was not “in play” until McCain emerged as the GOP choice for president and that the race in the state appeared likely “to be a dogfight.”

Obama, McCain and the Republican National Committee have spent $10.3 million blanketing Pennsylvania with general-election ads, the most spent in any state, according to a July 30 analysis by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

Obama has a larger ground operation here, with 29 field offices. And the Illinois senator boasted high-single-digit leads over McCain in recent polls.

Still, since losing the Pennsylvania Democratic primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by 10 percentage points, Obama has campaigned here only twice. He has focused more on trying to win over traditionally Republican states.

McCain, between his campaign field offices and Republican Party outposts, has about one-third as many open in Pennsylvania as Obama.

But he has campaigned frequently in the state. Tuesday marked his 15th day in Pennsylvania since he became the presumptive GOP nominee in March, and he plans after the Republican National Convention to make a bus tour through Pennsylvania with former Gov. Tom Ridge.


“You’re going to be seeing a lot of me in this state,” McCain told workers Monday at a General Electric locomotive plant in Erie.

During the Republican primaries, McCain rarely mentioned his history of collaborating with Democrats such as Kennedy, partly because their joint effort last year to promote immigration reform angered many GOP voters. Lately, however, in states such as Pennsylvania, McCain has sprinkled the names of Democrats into his remarks.

At the same time, while in the Keystone State, McCain has tried to exploit a comment Obama made this year that people in small towns in Pennsylvania and elsewhere “cling” to guns and religion because of economic uncertainty.

McCain said that during his upcoming bus tour with Ridge, “we’re going to tell people that we know they love the 2nd Amendment and cherish their religion because they believe in America.”

Obama’s comment didn’t sit well with the state’s working-class white Democrats, the Clinton backers whom McCain is wooing, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Borick said that compared with other Northeastern states, Pennsylvania is older, less diverse and more politically moderate.

McCain “sees opportunity in these voters,” he said. “They are by no means sold on Barack Obama, and they are a key constituency in winning Pennsylvania.”


Ridge, who accompanied McCain on his three-day swing through the state that began Sunday in Erie, said that the Arizona senator’s reputation as a maverick who crosses party lines would appeal to the state’s voters, particularly the sort of blue-collar voters once known as Reagan Democrats.

Smith countered that Obama would prevail after voters learned more about the two candidates. “Despite his rhetoric, John McCain is the one with six houses, a private jet and $500 loafers,” he said.

Yet Mark Sollars, a Democrat who described himself as a “die-hard” Clinton supporter during the primaries, came away from Tuesday’s event here impressed with McCain.

Sollars asked McCain what he would do for young people. McCain replied that he would push to reward students who chose to go into national service, such as through the military or the Peace Corps. He also said he would help ensure that student loans were available and provide extra aid to those studying math, science or engineering in college.

Sollars hasn’t decided which candidate he will vote for in November, but he said after the campaign appearance that McCain “was good. After that question, I’m pretty satisfied.”