Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives on stage before… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The towns around Pittsburgh, the blue-collar areas where conservative Democratslive, are considered the greatest challenge for President Obamain battleground Pennsylvania, which is why it’s no surprise Mitt Romney made a campaign stop there Tuesday.
Obama’s team has tried desperately to block Romney from any opening in a state that Democrats have won in presidential elections for two decades. The reelection campaign has included Pennsylvania in nearly every major television ad buy in an effort to control the political messaging in the state.
"The president has to guard it and defend it as if his election depends on it, and it does," said Christoher Borick, Muhlenberg College's political pollster.
Westmoreland County, where Romney visited a company invested in natural gas drilling, was once a solidly Democratic region that has swung increasingly Republican in recent years.
While the conventional wisdom of Pennsylvania politics is that statewide elections are won and lost in the Philadelphia suburbs, to the east, Obama's trouble spot is with the types of voters — white, working-class, conservative — that make up much of western Pennsylvania.
Romney holds a 12-point advantage over Obama among white men in Pennsylvania, a recent Quinnipiac University survey shows, and a 7-point lead among voters with no college degree.
"It's a tougher crowd out there. You can call them Casey Democrats, Reagan Democrats, whatever. I don't think they're at the place where they are Romney Democrats," said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia Democratic consultant. "In their minds, has [Obama] come up a bit short? Probably he has. I think he has to sell them on what he's done as president, because they certainly haven't bought into Romney yet."
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., as an antiabortion Democrat, appealed to moderates and conservatives during his 2006 run against incumbent Rick Santorum.
Both Obama and Romney need to make good with voters like Scott Woodmancy, 48, of Westmoreland County, who voted for Obama in 2008 but scoffed when asked recently if he'll vote for the president again. But that's not to say he's a Romney fan.
Obama's message of focusing on American workers should resonate with Woodmancy. A maintenance worker for more than 22 years, Woodmancy worked for Rolling Rock for 15 years before the Latrobe, Pa., brewing plant closed and production was moved to New Jersey. He said businessmen now care only about making more money, not about the people who do the labor.
It's that characterization that the Obama team is trying desperately to make stick on Romney, but Woodmancy doesn't want to hear it.
"I'm very distraught about the whole thing," he said. "I want to know what they stand for and all they're doing is bashing one another. I approve this message, I approve this message. This one didn't do this, this one did this. I don't want to know that. I want to know what you stand for."
Obama’s message is a winning one for Larry Testa, a retired tool and die maker for General Motors. His work, and the jobs saved by Obama's auto bailout, "are money jobs; those aren't nickel-and-dime jobs," he said.
On the eve of Obama's visit to Pittsburgh earlier this month, Testa was rushing to the courthouse in Greensburg, in Westmoreland County, to get his gun permit renewed.
Testa, 78, a Democrat, knows the economy isn't fixed, but he doesn't blame Obama.
"They want to blame everything on Obama now, but I know the shape it was in before he came in," he said. "If one guy can control the whole country then why do we even have senators and representatives — just eliminate them all. Some of the blame has to go on those people, not all on the president."
While unemployment in Westmoreland County, a predominantly white, lower-middle-class area, is low by national standards at 6.6%, blue-collar workers there still express frustration.
Steven Makar, 40, is on his second pay freeze in the last two years at the mining company where he has worked for seven years. His wife, Elaine, said they hadn't been on vacation since she was pregnant with her second child, who is now 7, because they can't afford it.
Steven is a registered Republican and Elaine is a registered Democrat, yet neither voted for Obama in 2008.
"From Day 1, I said that man had no idea what he was doing; he had everybody snowballed and fooled," Makar said, leaving an Eat'n Park restaurant in Greensburg. "I feel bad because everyone fell for it and now they are starting to see the outcome. He has no experience — no experience."
Still, Obama maintains a lead over Romney in poll after poll of Pennsylvania voters. A Quinnipiac University survey released June 27 of swing states Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio showed Obama leading in all three. Obama bested Romney, 45% to 39%, in the Keystone State.
John Brabender, a veteran Republican consultant from Pittsburgh who ran Rick Santorum's come-from-behind presidential campaign, says an incumbent rarely picks up the undecideds on election day.
"Don't watch the Romney number; watch the Obama number," Brabender said. "How far under 50 points Obama is … I can tell you right now if the president is truly at 45 points on the ballot, that's significant enough that he would have real problems in Pennsylvania today."
Brabender wasn't surprised the campaigns choose to visit western Pennsylvania. It's where a large share of "Reagan Democrats" are — the type of conservative Democrats that Romney has the chance to win over, he said.