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Philly Democrats get several visits

Obama holds four big but informal rallies in the city. He hopes to offset McCain's strength elsewhere in the battleground state.

October 12, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Barack Obama barnstormed the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday, telling tens of thousands of supporters that their votes and their volunteering would play a crucial role in deciding the presidency.

"If you will join with me, if you will work with me and organize with me and make phone calls with me and knock on doors with me, I promise you . . . we'll win Pennsylvania," Obama told 15,000 people at his first stop, in a predominantly black neighborhood near Temple University. "You and I together, we are going to change this country and we are going to change the world."

The Democratic presidential nominee made four stops in the city, highlighting the importance to his campaign of turning out votes in Philadelphia to offset Republican nominee John McCain's popularity in other parts of the state.

Obama is trying to capture the working-class voters of northeast Philadelphia who helped Hillary Rodham Clinton beat him by 9 percentage points in the Pennsylvania primary.

So when Obama addressed 5,000 people outside the Mayfair Diner on Saturday, in a northeast neighborhood full of brick row houses with pumpkins on the stoops, he portrayed McCain as out of touch with working families.

"John doesn't really seem to get what's going on with this crisis. When it first started, he talked about how the fundamentals of the economy are strong," Obama said. "Where I come from, nothing's more fundamental than a job."

Obama touted his proposals to provide every American with access to healthcare, to cut middle-class taxes and to create "green collar" jobs. And though he praised McCain's call to tone down the vitriol that has marked recent GOP rallies, Obama urged voters not to be "bamboozled" by his opponents' talk about changing Washington.

"Change isn't just a slogan," he said. "Change is an understanding of what the American people are going through."

If he wins the White House, Obama said, he will use the $10 billion the nation currently spends each month in Iraq on domestic programs.

He told a crowd of 20,000 in Germantown: "If we can rebuild Baghdad, we can sure as heck rebuild Philadelphia."

Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes could be key to winning the presidency. Both campaigns are blanketing the airwaves, having spent at least $27 million combined since mid-June on TV ads in Philadelphia, home to 40% of the state's voters. Obama has 80 Pennsylvania field offices and has spent six days in the state since the April primary; McCain has more than 50 offices and has spent 19 days there in the same period.

Recent polls show Obama with a double-digit lead, but his campaign expects the race to be tight. Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell told Philadelphians that their primary-day turnout of 53% of registered voters was insufficient. For Obama to win the state, 70% to 75% must go to the polls, he said.

"It's on each and every one of you to bring your friends, your relatives, your co-workers, people on the block, everybody has to vote," Rendell said. "I don't care how long the lines are. Nobody leaves."

Saturday was an unusual day on the campaign trail -- presidential candidates are more likely to hopscotch among four states in a day than among four spots in one city.

As Obama's motorcade snaked through Philadelphia's streets, drivers got out of their cars to cheer and residents rushed onto their stoops to wave. The events, capped with a sprawling rally at 52nd and Locust streets that drew 20,000, were also a nod to Philadelphia's neighborhood-centric politics.

Obama was criticized during the primary for staging huge rallies, seeming disconnected from voters, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Saturday's events, though large, seemed designed to create a more intimate, informal feel.

Retired teacher Beverly Wood, 59, responded well. "I've seen him on TV, in the debates. But to see him in person . . . he's so engaging.

"I've never felt like this before. It's a very strong emotional connection, a spiritual connection."

In Philadelphia, there also is an undeniably seamier side to politics: the long-standing practice in which candidates give "street money" to Democratic operatives in return for getting out the vote. Ward leaders and party bosses dole out small amounts to field workers on election day.

Obama aides declined to comment on whether they would give out street money. But if they don't, Madonna said, someone will do it on the campaign's behalf.

"There will be ample money on the streets of Philadelphia handed out by the Democrats in this campaign," he said.

Though money might serve as a motivator for some, many voters said the historic nature of Obama's candidacy was all they needed.

Betty Corcoran's eyes grew wide at the thought of a fellow African American winning the White House.

"I can't even imagine it, really," she said.

But the 60-year-old retired AT&T worker said she was worried about whether voters in the middle of Pennsylvania would sink Obama's chances to win the state.

"His race comes into play there, even though people won't openly admit it," Corcoran said.


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