Accessibility links

Pennsylvania Votes Tuesday in Close Democratic Presidential Race

Pennsylvania, with more than 12 million residents, is next to vote on which candidate the Democratic Party should nominate for U.S. president. With its combination of rural communities, small cities and large metropolitan areas, the state is large in size and its population is diverse. Senator Barack Obama holds a slight lead in the overall national race for the party's nomination. Most opinion polls show Senator Hillary Clinton with a dwindling lead among Pennsylvania's likely primary election voters. VOA's Jim Fry takes a closer look in advance of Tuesday's primary election.

People who live in the rolling Pennsylvania hills say it is some of the nation's richest farmland. The inner city neighborhoods are among the country's poorest.

The republic was founded here, and the state is steeped in history, as a small city mayor, J. Richard Gray, notes. "Right now we are standing very close to the grave of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. We take our politics seriously here," he said.

Pennsylvania is the next stop in the historic battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination between an African American, Barack Obama; and a woman, Hillary Clinton.

The eastern state of Pennsylvania is large and diverse with two major cities. The biggest is Philadelphia, the nation's fifth largest.

On Philadelphia's south side, the Melrose Dinner straddles the border between two very different wards, as the city's political districts are called.

The 26th ward is an Italian American enclave. The 48th ward has become predominantly African American.

Inside, short order cooks fry up breakfast for a lunch crowd that looks like the neighborhood. Opinions, one ward leader says, often fall along racial lines - not that Bob Durbanis would admit to any racial tinge in his antipathy toward Barack Obama. "I don't care that he's black," says Durbanis, who is white. "He's an outgoing person, you know. He's not a roughneck, I'll say that for him. But I don't think that he's my president.”

Harvey Roberson carefully excludes race as his motive for making his choice. “I have a good feeling and it's not because of race or anything like that, because I think the person will do a good job. And I like Senator Obama," Robertson said.

The campaign came to the Sheet Metal Workers Hall, where, inside, the city's ward leaders gathered.

Hillary Clinton proclaimed herself proud of this campaign, saying "it's only because of all the people who came before in the civil rights movement and the women's movement."

Obama brought his mantra of change though, he said, not blind optimism: "You've got to have hope to believe that change can happen.”

Volunteers for Obama walk the north side, which residents describe as a low income neighborhood. Taniek Mitchum says she wants better health care, echoing many other Pennsylvania Democrats who point to the inadequate care for the nation's 45 million uninsured.

The massive Bethlehem Steel plant, abandoned and decrepit, serves as a symbol of another issue - jobs.

N and N Drilling Supply near Scranton does a brisk international business making environmental drills. Employee Mike Ghilardy says the work here is good, although he has held eight different jobs in the past four years. And he says he worries, adding, "Oh, yes, before I retire I'll probably end up changing jobs at least two, three times."

State Representative Frank Andrews Shimkus recalls that Hillary Clinton's grandfather worked in a factory in Scranton, then a mining and manufacturing town. "She can relate to us,” Shimkus said. “She's got to take care of the whole country, but, perhaps, the thing that touches her heart are the things that she knows, [like] the senior citizens here."

The area's state senator, Robert Mellow, believes Obama is better able to act. “You do not address change by recycling the same people who have been responsible for the position this country is in today," he says.

The small city of Lancaster, in southern Pennsylvania is circled by suburbs and further out by farms. Folks say the conservatives who live here are not inclined toward change.

Yet the city's mayor, J. Richard Gray, an Obama supporter, says he senses something. "We've had thousands of people - and at last count they weren't yet able to calculate the number of people - who have changed their registration from Republican to Democrat, primarily to vote for Barack Obama,” Gray said.

Yet in these cozy towns and big cities, other Democrats say they are similarly excited at the prospect of nominating a woman.

Pennsylvania votes on Tuesday, 22 April.