The U.S. presidential election is considered so close that it could come down to who wins three large states: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. President George Bush narrowly lost Pennsylvania in 2000. He is spending a lot of time campaigning in the Mid-Atlantic state this time around. Opinion polls show the Republican President's Democratic Party challenger, Senator John Kerry, now has a very slight lead.
Pennsylvania's two big cities, Pittsburgh in the west and Philadelphia in the east, are Democratic Party strongholds. They will vote heavily for Senator John Kerry. The rural areas and small cities and towns of the center of the state are filled with supporters of President Bush. Their votes will offset those of the urban Democratic Party supporters.
So Pennsylvania's election could be decided in just a few places. Places such as Abington Township. The voters here and in other Philadelphia suburbs are nominally Republican Party members but a majority voted for Democratic Party candidates in the last three Presidential elections.
"The suburbs are often the key," says Terry Madonna, who does public opinion polling for Franklin and Marshall College in the city of Lancaster, says the suburban Republican party members are very different from conservative, rural Republicans. "They tend to be culturally very moderate, if not liberal, supporting abortion rights, supporting gay marriage and extension of other legal rights to gays and lesbians, favor gun control, and are very supportive of environmental restrictions," he says.
Neither party can count on the support of those suburban voters- both are chasing them. It's the same story in the Lehigh Valley- an area north of Philadelphia that is also considered up for grabs. According to political scientist Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College it's a place that looks a lot like America as a whole. "It has three hard and fast urban areas: Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. It has some of the fastest suburban growth areas. And it has rural areas close by. So, that diversity and makeup of the place make it very much like the makeup of the country. And therefore, just like the country is split, so is the Valley," he says.
Professor Borick says the race is on for every vote. "When it's so close- and all our polling numbers show that Pennsylvania is a toss-up state and the Valley is a toss-up district- if that's the case, you can't really neglect anybody," he says. "You have to try to secure every little group"
Hispanics- a growing percentage of the Valley's population- are being courted heavily by both parties.
At the Kerry campaign headquarters in Allentown, volunteers try to sway undecided voters. Brian Souerwine, a retired teacher, says ""We do what we call a persuasion phone call, try to give them some of the specifics of the issues that may persuade them to vote for Kerry"
Another group that could decide the race is newly registered voters. In the central Pennsylvania town of Ephrata, during its recent street fair, the Republican Party ran a voter registration booth.
Anna Mae Ressler signed up 39 people in one day. She is happy that 34 of them plan to vote for President Bush "President Bush, I feel, has actually tried to lead America as contrasted to, should we get Kerry, God forbid, he's more concerned with the world and what they think- President Bush thinks first of Americans and what's good for them," she says.
President Bush has come to Pennsylvania almost 40 times in four years, in search of votes. Polls show he has the support of the state's military veterans, Evangelical Christians and people in higher income brackets.
Senator Kerry leads among Catholics, moderates, young voters and union workers. The unions are angry that the state has lost 160,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001.
In the Lehigh Valley, the Bethlehem steel plant that once employed 35,000 people has shut down.
But this is also a state where one of the airliners hijacked on September 11 2001 crashed into a field. Homeland security is a big issue, too says Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "If more voters decide that President Bush has kept us safe and that he's successful in the war on terror, then I think the edge probably goes to President Bush. If more voters look at things and see the economic issues are great and that the President hasn't done enough to solve them, then I think the edge goes to Kerry. And then we have sort of the Iraq wild card," he says.
Iraq matters because Pennsylvania sends large numbers of its young people to the armed forces. And opinion polls indicate growing unease among people in Western Pennsylvania who could normally be counted on to support a war.
Iraq could be the deciding factor in the state- but so could other issues such as health care. Analysts won't make any predictions, except to say the race in Pennsylvania will go right down to the wire.