Trish Heckman, a 49-year-old restaurant cook and disappointed Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter, watched last week as the country’s newest political star made her explosive debut.
She followed the news when John McCain introduced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, paid attention to the raging debate over her qualifications, even tuned in to watch her dramatic speech at the Republican convention.
But when it came down to an issue Heckman really cares about -- sending a daughter to college on $10.50 an hour -- her desire to see a woman reach the White House took a back seat to her depleted savings account.
“I wanted Hillary to win so bad, but I saw Sarah, and it just didn’t work for me,” said Heckman, taking a break in the empty courtyard of J. Paul’s restaurant in a downtown struggling to revive. “I have no retirement. Obama understands it’s the economy. He knows how we live.”
Heckman, like many others in this former coal-mining town at the western foot of the Appalachians, is the type of voter that both presidential campaigns will target in the final two months. Polls show that working-class women have emerged as one of the most critical categories of swing voters at a time when McCain and Barack Obama have galvanized their party bases but still need more votes to win.
Palin, a little-known 44-year-old mother of five, burst onto the scene just days ago, presenting herself as the woman to finally shatter the glass ceiling cracked by the Democratic New York senator’s historic candidacy.
But now, after a chaotic introductory week that sparked national debates on McCain’s judgment, Palin’s experience and even her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, the initial signs are not entirely positive for the reinvigorated Republican ticket.
Interviews with some two dozen women here after Palin’s convention speech found that these voters were not swayed by the fiery dramatic speeches or compelling personal biographies that marked both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Instead, they were thinking about the price of milk -- nearly $5 a gallon -- or the healthcare coverage that many working families here cannot afford.
Even if they admire Palin’s attempt to juggle political ambition, an infant son with Down syndrome and a pregnant unwed daughter, these women say that maternal grit is not enough to win their votes.
Waitress Judy Artice, “Miss Judy,” as she is known at Glisan’s roadside diner, declared Palin “the perfect candidate” after watching her Wednesday speech. That said, Artice had already decided that her vote would go to the first candidate who mentioned gasoline prices.
“And -- I’ll be danged -- it was Obama,” Artice, 46, said between servings of liver and onions during the lunch rush.
Both campaigns have signaled that these blue-collar hamlets could be where the election will be decided, an assessment made even more likely when the nation’s unemployment rate hit a five-year high in August.
McCain dominates among white men, and Obama, who would be the first black president, is all but sweeping the black vote, most polls show. That leaves white women, the so-called Clinton base, as one of the most sought-after voting groups left on the table.
Recent surveys suggest that Palin, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, is not necessarily poised to help McCain with moderate women. A National Journal/Hotline daily tracking poll released Friday found that 49% of male voters say Palin is prepared to be president but that only 41% of female voters think so.
But Republican strategists hope that Palin’s middle-class roots, union-member husband and love of hunting will help her connect to rural and small-town folks in battleground states such as Pennsylvania.
This is, after all, a place where schools close on the opening day of deer hunting season, people are conflicted about abortion rights and racial bias still simmers.
Sara Taylor, former Bush White House political affairs director, described Palin as a “living, breathing replica of the middle class” who “connected with people in a way we haven’t seen a national figure do in a long time.”
And Uniontown was very much in the McCain campaign’s sights throughout a convention that showcased Palin’s small-town roots while portraying Obama, who lives in Chicago, as a big-city elitist.
Republican delegates and activists in the convention hall delighted in Palin’s jabs at the Illinois senator, such as when she poked fun at the columned backdrop for Obama’s stadium acceptance speech or mocked him as intent on “turning back the waters and healing the planet.”
For many women here watching closely, though, that portion of Palin’s speech was all they needed to hear.
When Palin belittled Obama’s history as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side -- suggesting he was a do-little activist while she, as the former mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, had “actual responsibilities” -- Sandy Ryan, 59, clicked the remote.
“That’s enough of that. I switched over to ‘House Hunters,’ ” she said with some disgust over dessert with a group of women from the senior housing complex she manages.
One of a dwindling number of coveted undecideds, Ryan gets a firsthand view of retirees forced to choose between food and medication. She is not convinced Obama has the experience to be president, but Palin only reinforced her concern that McCain would mean four more years of divisiveness and gridlock.
Patty Tobal, a 63-year-old retired nurse and lifelong feminist, shut off the TV set and went to bed. The promise of a woman on the ticket had piqued her curiosity, but she found Palin’s sarcasm offensive and her priorities out of touch.
“We don’t need any more fighting in Washington,” Tobal said while having her hair done at a little shop on Route 40, where the customers go longer between appointments in these hard times. “Women are not for women just because they are women. We are intelligent enough to make a conscious decision.”
Life here is basic and hard. Coal miners still work the mountains. The upscale Nemacolin Woodlands Resort just down the road is replete with shops and restaurants that Uniontown residents can’t afford.
And residents describe their downtown, where a portrait of native son and five-star general George C. Marshall covers a building several stories high, as “quaint but sad.”
If these women are any indication, the threat to Obama’s camp is not that they will side with McCain but that they will stay home, as Heckman, the restaurant chef and single mother of two, says many people on her block plan to do.
But those disenchanted voters could be balanced by newly inspired ones, such as Jennifer Glisan, 23, an emergency medical technician who saves lives every week but cannot afford health insurance. Clinton’s gender was enough to awaken her political interest, but Palin’s failed to hold it.
“I think Palin is a fake. She will run the economy into the ground,” Glisan said after catching glimpses of the vice presidential nominee’s speech between emergency calls.
“I have to kill myself every day at work to earn enough to pay for gas to get there. I think Obama is sincere. I think we need a change.”
Fiore reported from Uniontown, Pa., Wallsten from St. Paul, Minn.