President Obama greets supporters in Scranton during one of 17 visits he… (Butch Comegys, Scranton…)
Reporting from Philadelphia — In his first run for president, Barack Obama won every state he was expected to win and carried a few more he didn't need to get comfortably over the top.
This time, amid a sluggish economic recovery and high unemployment, the race is shaping up to be much closer — so close that Obama's showing in one state might foretell his chances across the electoral map.
That would be Pennsylvania.
Strategists say a loss in Pennsylvania would all but doom the president's reelection hopes. It would mean he hadn't rallied his base, or won back independent voters who abandoned him in 2010, or closed an enthusiasm gap that now favors Republicans. A poor showing here — a state the Democratic nominee has carried in the last five presidential contests — would suggest Obama's surprising 2008 victories in states such as Virginia and North Carolina would be tough to duplicate.
It would not bode well for Obama in states where he faces even tougher fights, such as Ohio and Indiana, which share Pennsylvania's post-industrial hardships. Even a close race in Pennsylvania would suck up Obama's time, keeping him out of Southwestern states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado that offer another route to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
"There's a theoretical path to 270 without Pennsylvania, but not a practical path," said Steve Schmidt, who ran Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign. "You can manipulate the states and the numbers to arrive at 270, but losing Pennsylvania would indicate deep problems" in the Obama campaign.
Obama visited Scranton last week, his 17th trip to Pennsylvania since taking office, according to Brendan Doherty, a Naval Academy political science professor who is coming out next year with a book titled "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign." In addition to those frequent visits, the president's advisors plan to again deploy the closest thing they have to a native son: Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden, a former senator from Delaware, spent part of his boyhood in Scranton, which Obama referenced in his speech when he brought "greetings from somebody you guys know pretty well — a guy named Joe Biden." The vice president focused heavily on the state in the 2008 race, making his final appearance of that campaign in Philadelphia.
"One thing that hasn't changed at all is that Vice President Biden is certainly revered here," said Joseph Corcoran, a former Lackawanna County commissioner.
It's not likely that many party officials would use that adjective when speaking about Obama. In the 2010 midterm election, Pennsylvania Republicans picked up the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat. The GOP also gained a majority of the state's congressional delegation for the first time since 2006.
It's too early to say the president is on the ropes. But there's no question that his approval ratings have fallen, here as elsewhere. In a Quinnipiac poll last month, 44% of those surveyed said they approved of Obama's performance in office. The same poll showed him in a dead heat statewide when matched against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
John Brabender a Republican strategist with an office in Pittsburgh, said Pennsylvania was a bellwether because it had "a lot of conservative Democrats and independents in the state who are swing voters and swing back and forth."
The Obama campaign will "have to spend time and capital to win Pennsylvania — and that's time away from Florida and Ohio and states that are more difficult for them. And that signals problems," Brabender said.
Michael Dukakis was the last Democratic nominee to lose Pennsylvania, and he lost the 1988 election to George H.W. Bush. In 2008, Obama won the state by 10 percentage points, exploiting a 1.2-million-plus Democratic voter registration advantage born of a massive organizing effort.
"The race is going to be a nail-biter for him, particularly if Gov. Romney" is his opponent, said Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat who lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Patrick J. Toomey in 2010.
It seems counterintuitive, but Romney's perceived flip-flopping might prove to be an asset among moderate Republicans and independents in the Philadelphia suburbs, Sestak said, because those voters don't want ideologues.
As for Obama's presidency, Sestak said, "There was a promise that this wasn't going to be a red-blue battle — that it was going to be something different. It never came about, and people have a right to be disappointed. It is tough, sure, but he's the captain of the ship."
With the election less than a year away, Obama is plowing resources into the state. The campaign has opened a large office in Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold. Taped to the walls are lists of neighborhoods with names and email addresses of volunteers.
The aim is to reassemble the foot soldiers to register voters and get people to the polls. Registered Democrats still far outnumber Republicans, but the GOP has narrowed the gap by 125,000 since the 2008 election.
"I'm going to be working my ass off to get the message out in Philadelphia and everywhere [Obama] wants me to go," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in an interview.