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Yo! Welcome to Pennsylvania

Where Madonna is not a sex symbol and cheez whiz can lose the presidency.

By 3.11.08

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HARRISBURG -- Yo! Let me get yunz a gumband! It's time to redd up the house!

Welcome to Pennsylvania! Who would have believed those of us with a primary backed up into the hinterlands of the calendar would really have had a chance to seriously make an impact New Hampshire-style? April 22 is one long electoral stretch from January 8...

Actually, it's only Pennsylvania Democrats who will be doing the heavy lifting, although Senator John McCain will be visiting on Thursday for a fundraiser a mere block from our family abode. So let me help all you non-Pennsylvanians get acclimated to what will be spilling through your TV screens the next seven weeks.

First, a translation of three of our state dialects that were illustrated above. The first, a Philadelphia staple, you may remember from the Rocky films, those heartwarming sagas of perhaps our greatest Pennsylvanian after Ben Franklin, South Philly's Rocky Balboa. "Yo Adrienne" is roughly translated for the more refined as "Hello, Adrienne" which, as Sylvester Stallone immediately determined when scribbling out his Oscar winning screenplay, somehow just doesn't do the sentiment justice. "Yunz" (pronounced as "une-zzzzz") is the Pittsburgh equivalent of the Southern "y'all." As in, "Where yunz goin'?" "Gumband" is what is known to the rest of the world outside Western Pennsylvania as a "rubberband." Here in Central Pennsylvania, land of the Amish, to "redd up the house" means to clean it up, "redd" being used by, among others, the Pennsylvania Dutch.

James Carville, who, by the way, will be in nearby York debating his lovely and talented better half Mary Matalin in the wake of the primary, has famously said of my beloved adopted home state that it consisted of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Somehow I suspect this was not intended as a compliment, but I have met some Alabamans in my life and I always try and take it that way. What I will assume Mr. Carville was trying to say is that to outsiders who think of Pennsylvania in terms of its two largest cities, there is a lot more going on here politically than meets the eye. Let's face it, a state that can elect devoted pro-lifers (Republican Rick Santorum and his successor, Democrat Bob Casey, Jr.) to sit alongside a long time pro-choicer (Republican Arlen Specter) as Pennsylvania's U.S. Senators is most assuredly not, say, New York or New Jersey, its northern and eastern neighbors.

From Valley Forge to 9/11's downing of United Flight 93, the state has had a sometimes tumultuous history. While the past tends to freeze in a lot of modern minds as both old and irrelevant, this is, of course, a big mistake. Understanding what has gone before is always important, and to understand Pennsylvania this rule is no different.

Three of the most important documents in American history date their lineage to Pennsylvania: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, both conceived, debated and written in Philadelphia, and the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln delivered the November following the horrifically bloody three-day battle that proved to be the high water mark of the Confederacy. James Buchanan, one of the most experienced men in American history to occupy the White House, rose to fame in Lancaster, where his treasured home Wheatland is still a tourist attraction. Buchanan, known to his constituents as "Old Buck," served as a state legislator, congressman, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and Ambassador to Great Britain before winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1856. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Buchanan, the 1856 embodiment of Hillary Clinton's experience argument about being prepared to be president on Day One, is now rated by historians as one of the worst presidents in history. His successor, a little known former state legislator from Illinois with only one term in the U.S. Congress in his background, fared somewhat better. Uh-oh.

While Buchanan is the only president the state has produced, Pennsylvania has managed repeatedly to put forward a string of powerful or notable politicians. The state's very first U.S. Senator, William Maclay, was not so much a powerhouse as a tattle-tale, keeping a later-published diary filled with acerbic comments about the Washington-Adams administration. Maclay does have one accomplishment that is with us today: it is he who led the fight to call the new chief executive simply "Mr. President" as opposed to "His Excellency," "His Elective Majesty," "His Highness" or the mouth marbling "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same." Then there were the powerful father-and-son Senators Simon and Donald Cameron. The father, a failed candidate for the 1860 GOP presidential nomination, left the Senate briefly for a, shall we say, faintly odiferous turn as Lincoln's Secretary of War. It was a position from which he was eventually removed by his disturbed leader, who resolved the stench of corruption by sending Cameron to Russia as the American Ambassador. Cameron eventually returned to the Senate, though, staying long enough to secure the election of son Donald, a crony of President Grant's. Not to be forgotten are the all-powerful GOP machine Senators Matthew Quay and Boies Penrose at the turn of the 20th century. It was Penrose who pushed forward Ohio colleague Warren Harding to victory at the 1920 GOP Convention. In recent years the power mantle has passed on through to U.S. Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott and the current Senator Arlen Specter. When you throw in a few prominent governors and powerful Congressmen (sigh, Jack Murtha), Pennsylvania has had its share of legislative movers and shakers.

SO WHAT'S HERE POLITICALLY that you should know about the 2008 Democratic primary? What's the scoop about a state that varies wildly from city to farm, from suburban soccer-Moms to gun toting union members, from ethnic Catholics to white-bread Protestants sprinkled with a respectably-sized Jewish population that has produced both the incumbent Democratic governor and senior Republican U.S. Senator?

For guidance I turn to a Pennsylvania favorite. Madonna. No, not that one. I write here of Dr. G. Terry Madonna, a professor of Public Affairs at my alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster. (Note to Hillary and Barack: when campaigning in Lancaster, pronounce the name of both city and county as "Lank-aster" not "Land-caster." This is a "vote against" offense that neither of you can afford.)

Terry Madonna, and his longtime friend and partner Dr. Michael Young, the managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research, are the "it girls" of polling, politics and public policy here in the Keystone State. Together they are perpetually plumbing the political depths of William Penn's great experiment, always giving those of us who have actively participated in state politics and government the political equivalent of a statewide CAT scan or MRI.

Here's Terry and Mike's latest take.

Pennsylvania is Hillary Clinton's "turf." She not only has the enthusiastic support of Governor Ed Rendell -- and a sitting governor's support is always important for a presidential candidate of either party trying to win delegates here -- the demographics of the state work in her favor. We have five major media markets here, and Terry and Mike break them down this way:

* Philadelphia: Obama. More than half the population is African-American. While Rendell is popular here -- he's a former mayor of Philadelphia -- and current Mayor Michael Nutter is also a Hillary supporter, Obama should carry the day.

* Philadelphia suburbs: Battleground. These are the four heavily populated "bedroom" counties -- Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester -- that ring the city. This will be a battleground between Clinton and Obama. Lots of educated, affluent voters here that match profiles of Obama supporters, lots of women who like Hillary.

* Pittsburgh and the Southwest: Clinton. This part of Pennsylvania, the home of former Senator Rick Santorum, is heavily Catholic with lots of union voters. There are, even now, Reagan Democrats aplenty to be found here in what Terry and Mike call the "aging mining and mill towns" that dot the region where George Washington earned international fame at the ripe age of 22. It is not unlike Ohio, which lies on the western border.

* Scranton and the Northeast: Clinton. This is the home turf of current U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (who is neutral) and of his late and very popular namesake Dad, Governor Casey. Democrats here are conservative or centrist in Lackawanna County (Scranton) and Luzerne County (Hazleton -- where the GOP's Mayor Lou Barletta, he of immigration issue fame, is running for Congress against incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski). Scranton is the hometown of the Rodham family -- yes, you heard that right. Daddy Hugh Rodham Sr. lived in Scranton and won a football scholarship to Penn State. His little girl has vacationed here, according to Terry and Mike, and that helps Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as a sort of local favorite, which is why she was booked to appear last night at Scranton High School.

* Lehigh Valley and South Central: Battleground. This area encompasses the Allentown/Bethlehem area and Harrisburg/Lancaster/York. The Lehigh Valley elected Arlen Specter's conservative nemesis and current Club for Growth president Pat Toomey to Congress, and South Central, where The American Spectator has a beachhead just down State Street in Harrisburg from the State Capitol, is the heart of Carville's concept of a northern Alabama. The population here, as Terry and Mike make clear and as I can personally attest is growing all the time, with a tendency to, as the guys say, "vote against the grain." It is a mix of suburban and rural counties, the area that a Republican candidate needs to frequent (along with the Philadelphia suburbs) if he is going to counterbalance the Democrats in Philadelphia. As mentioned John McCain will be here Thursday at the West Shore Country Club.

Terry and Mike's bottom line assessment is a hair-raising one for Democrats. The state will probably go for Clinton. But. The problem is that the 158 delegates to be selected here will have to follow the party's proportionality rules. Which in turn makes Pennsylvania what they term a "bridge to nowhere," in terms of the nomination. The two believe that a scenario unfolds that will leave Obama ahead in delegates nationally, with Clinton carrying Pennsylvania and gaining momentum -- yet unable to catch Obama, who in turn will not have the mathematical ability to clinch the nomination. In others words, say Madonna and Young, the home of the Pennsylvania polka will become the Pennsylvania checkmate.

WHILE IT CERTAINLY SEEMS eons ago, once upon a time Pennsylvania used to play a bit of a role in the primary season. Eugene McCarthy captured headlines by winning it in 1968, Hubert Humphrey scored briefly by winning it in 1972 and in 1976 Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson was knocked out for good by Jimmy Carter. So we're in for an exciting seven weeks of rough and tumble here. At noon today, Hillary Clinton will be the focus of a rally here in Harrisburg. Along with Governor Rendell, the longtime and very popular Democratic mayor of Harrisburg, Steve Reed, will be at her side. He is already enthusing on the front pages of our local paper, the venerable Harrisburg Patriot-News, that his candidate has "extensive experience." Ace political reporter Brett Lieberman quotes the Mayor as following the Clinton talking points to the letter: "The political landscape is littered with a lot of good ideas because people didn't have the experience to get them done. Hillary Clinton has the experience." Shades of Old Buck.

According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll from last month, Lieberman says, Clinton is leading Obama 49-43. A Patriot-News map of the state shows only Philadelphia leaning heavily to Obama. Into all of this mix, Governor Rendell casually allowed a few weeks ago that there are white Pennsylvanians who simply wouldn't vote for Obama for racial reasons. Yikes!

So Pennsylvanians are racing to the store for popcorn and confetti, enjoying that strange world usually inhabited by New Hampshire-ites and Iowans where the candidates are on TV one minute and walking down your Main Street in person the next.

If I had to bet today? Hillary.

Oh, and the cheez whiz? As any Pennsylvanian can tell you, when in Philadelphia the thing to do is have what is known to the outside world as a Philadelphia cheesesteak. Thin slices of beef grilled with onions and served on a hoagie roll (along with, if asked, a conglomeration of hot peppers that will leave you sweating), the cheesesteak is a genuine cultural and culinary work of art. And what else? Well, cheese, of course. And not just any kind of cheese. The Philadelphia cheesesteak is famously topped with that world class symbol of elegance -- cheez whiz. Yes, that gooey concoction that has been the solution to uncountable millions of harried Moms after a quick fix for the kids' lunch. Alas, this was not something understood by the famously Brahmin John "Francois" Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. Campaigning, he showed up dutifully at Pat's, the King of Steaks. In a mistake of several orders of political magnitude that re-enforced his blossoming image as an out-of-touch aristocrat, Kerry strolled up to the counter in full view of television and still cameras and ordered a cheesesteak with -- Swiss cheese. The next day, in vivid color on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News was a photograph of Kerry, with a cheesesteak jammed ingloriously into his wide open mouth, underneath this astonished headline: "PREZ HOPEFUL ASKS FOR SWISS CHEESE!" No further explanation was needed.

You remember President Kerry, don't you?

This year the immigration issue has co-mingled with the cheesesteak issue. Pat's neighborhood South Philly competitor, Geno's, made headlines when the owner put a sign in the window reading: "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

Hmmm. Which Democrat will be ordering at Geno's? Will they go to Pat's? Or will they obey the sign and order in English, potentially alienating the Latino vote across the country? Stay tuned.

If you're in our neighborhood here in Harrisburg, stop in to visit. And you might want to remember the opening line from the Pennsylvania polka, the state's unofficial song.

"It started in Scranton, a long time ago."

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.