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In Democratic stronghold, a reluctant tilt to Obama

SCRANTON, Pa. — This may be a Democratic stronghold, but folks aren't shy about ticking off what bugs them about Barack Obama. ¶ He seems a bit smug. He was never in the same league as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then added insult to injury by passing her over for VP. And there's the rumors, false, that Obama is a Muslim. Plus his earlier refusal to wear an American flag pin. ¶ "He said it was a fashion statement, wearing the flag," Trish Votaw , a 40-something divorcee, said as she smoked Marlboros on her front porch while waiting for her teenage boys to get home from school. "But who cares if it is a fashion statement? It's the American way. Especially with our troops over there. He should have the flag on."

Votaw voted for Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary, helping her trounce Obama in the Scranton area by a 3-1 ratio. When Clinton conceded the nomination, Votaw flirted with backing Republican John McCain because she respects his experience and clear-eyed patriotism.

But after eight years of a Republican president, most of it with a Republican Congress, she is leery. The war in Iraq is a drag, excess on Wall Street has led to lean times on Main Street, and many of the good-paying factory jobs that helped build this coal town are gone. She worries her sons won't have anything to keep them here.

If Obama reverses his crummy fortunes among working-class white voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other rural reaches of the Rust Belt and manages to get elected president of the United States, it will be thanks to Votaw and former Clinton supporters like her — working-class white voters who may not love him, but who are learning to tolerate him.

Obama has two kids, too, Votaw says. She figures he won't do anything to make health care harder to get. Most of all, she believes that he means well.

"He's got a family. I think he's going to do more for the working family than John McCain," said Votaw, a mental health services supervisor. "After thinking it over, I decided that McCain is too much like Bush. We need Bush out of there. So why would we put another one in?"

• • •

Back in April, it was hard to find a kind word for Obama in Scranton, a blue-collar city of 75,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania that is pivotal to Democratic victory in the state. Recent polls in Pennsylvania, along with extensive interviews in Scranton, suggest that growing concerns about the economy have helped Obama change some minds, however. Many people here blame President Bush for their troubles and, by extension, the financial turmoil is making them reluctant to give a fellow Republican the keys to the White House.

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, once a staunch Clinton supporter, says he can now tell constituents that he's backing Obama without automatically inviting an argument. But he acknowledges Obama still faces hostility.

Clinton's main argument during the primary, that the freshman senator from Illinois is too green, sticks with voters here. Many are still annoyed that Obama, 47, attended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years, yet professes never to have heard him bash the United States or suggest America somehow invited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Stop 10 people — in pizza parlors, on the street, at work, or in the bars — and several are likely to mention how Obama once said rural Pennsylvania voters cling to guns and God because they're bitter.

Polls show working-class women seem to be easing his way. Working-class men, so far, are not.

"A lot of that alienation remains, and it's a problem for him, and it's especially a problem in central Pennsylvania and the Scranton area," said Clay Richards, who analyzes Pennsylvania and Ohio data as assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Center.

Doherty suggested a visit from the man himself may be in order. Give voters a chance to see he is much like them. Bill and Hillary Clinton will be in town today for the baptism of their nephew, and will stick around for a rally with Obama's running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a Scranton native who has helped Obama's cause here. But it's not quite the same. Obama visited nearby Wilkes-Barre a couple of weeks ago, but he hasn't been to Scranton since the April 22 primary.

"In Scranton, we're used to seeing our candidates, and touching our candidates," Doherty said. "Hillary, she was here eight different times, and she'd spend three, four hours each time. She immersed herself in the crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs.

"If he did that, he'd go a long way toward helping himself."

• ••

If Carol Oleski and her cohorts, Judy O'Connor and Maria Szymanski, said it once over the course of an hour, they said it a dozen times: Who the heck is Barack Obama?

All three are Democrats, and all three were uber-volunteers for Clinton, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week toward her election. One weekend before the Ohio primary, they took a 10-hour bus ride through the snow to help get out the vote in Akron.

Yet Monday night, despite Clinton's appeal for her supporters to join Obama, the trio hosted the grand opening of the Democrats for McCain headquarters on North Main Avenue in West Scranton. About 100 people showed up, spilling out of the cramped quarters into the narrow parking lot, carting away "Democrats for McCain-Palin" yard signs and grousing about Obama.

"He's never connected to the people in Scranton," said Oleski, 45, the new paid director. "That's a problem for him here."

"We're bitter people, gun totin', clingin' to our Bibles," O'Connor, 58, said sarcastically.

"Where is Obama, and who is he?" Oleski continued. "He's never reached out to us for one thing. Who is he?"'

Szymanski raised her right hand, gestured emphatically. "Where are his high school friends? His college roommates?"

"He's an enigma," O'Connor declared.

Oleski began offering reasons for switching sides. "McCain, he has experience. I'd much rather have someone take over who has experience. … They're putting out there that McCain is so much like Bush. Is that all they have?"

Szymanski, 58, a former high school guidance counselor, bemoaned the fact that Obama is so popular with the young folks. "They grew up with diversity, and I think it's great that they don't see race, they don't see differences. But they don't see experience or responsibility."

"John McCain loves his country," Oleski said. "He truly loves his country."

All three say that when the red phone at the White House rings at 3 a.m. because of some crisis, if it can't be Hillary at the other end, then it had better be McCain, 72. He has been to war. He has spent 26 years in Congress. Despite Scranton's Democratic leanings — in 2004, Democrat John Kerry won Lackawanna County with 56 percent of the vote — they believe McCain will do well, and the Republicans clearly see an opening.

McCain and his party have opened four offices in Scranton, including the Democrats for Obama shop. Three weeks ago, McCain became the first Republican presidential candidate to host an Irish-American town hall meeting in Scranton.

Radio and TV are crammed with advertisements questioning Obama's commitment to guns, the military, the American way, and crammed with Obama's counterpoints. Oleski figures that by today, she'll have at least 115 Clinton fans making calls and knocking on doors for McCain.

"People in this area, they're hard working, they get up every day," Oleski said. "They are really scared of the unknown, scared of what might happen."

• • •

That fear cuts both ways, of course. As they painted a wrought-iron fence outside a dental office in South Scranton, Mark Ephault, 44, and his brother, Jack, 41, of Mark and Jack of All Trades, said the economic downturn has been tough. They are thankful their wives have steady jobs, but they got through winter on credit. They backed Clinton in the primary and now plan to vote for Obama.

"We're small business, and we just don't believe that John McCain and the Republicans are for small business," Mark said.

"The middle class," Jack said.

"Man, there is no middle class."

Mark continued. He had considered voting for Obama in the primary, then the Rev. Wright stuff came out. That annoyed him. "We know people, we have a lot of friends who were Hillary supporters. They want nothing to do with him. They want nothing to do with John McCain. Their answer is don't vote."

"Which I think is wrong," his little brother said.

"I think it's just bitterness myself," Mark said. "There's a lot of people who will not vote, or vote for McCain out of spite. But I think most people will come around."

• • •

A couple of blocks down the street at the Yankee Lunch, Debbie Hallisky, 44, waited at the counter for a pair of Texas wieners and assumed an air of disgust.

"I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton," she said.

The young woman mashing split hot dogs on the sizzling grill snorted.

"Don't laugh," Hallisky said. "I'm going to write Hillary's name in."

The cook lowered her voice and confided that she's for Obama. "Don't even ask me why," she said.

Hallisky is a hairdresser with a quick laugh who works part time cleaning houses and running errands for senior citizens. The Texas wieners are lunch for one of them. Her husband works at the huge Army depot called Tobyhanna. They have three kids.

"I work two jobs and my husband works a job," she said. "That's terrible. Where's the American dream in that?"

She finds the campaign disgusting. Too many negative ads, and it's hard to discern who would do what, really. "It's a turnoff. You don't even want to vote."

She grabbed the brown paper bag and headed for the door. "Nah, I'll probably vote for Obama. I don't want another George Bush."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

In Democratic stronghold, a reluctant tilt to Obama 10/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 10:16am]
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