PITTSBURGH — Barack Obama kicked off a six-day bus tour of Pennsylvania on Friday, working to narrow Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton's statewide lead enough to reaffirm his national front-runner status after racial tensions put his candidacy in a tailspin.
As Obama supporters ratcheted up pressure on Clinton to bow out, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., joined Obama onstage at the Soldiers and Sailors Military Museum in Pittsburgh to offer his unexpected endorsement ahead of the April 22 primary.
Casey, a freshman senator, is an abortion opponent who comes from a prominent Pennsylvania political family and could help Obama with white, more socially conservative Democrats. Casey said the biracial first-term senator from Illinois represents "a story infused with the promise of America" and that "he can heal us, he can help us rebuild America."
With the words of the Gettysburg Address painted across the wall behind the stage, Casey said of Obama that "especially under fire, he has appealed, as Abraham Lincoln asked us to do many years ago, to the better angels of our nature."
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said in a public radio interview in his home state of Vermont that Clinton should get out of the race because there was "no way" she could win enough delegates to win the nomination.
At his Pittsburgh kickoff, Obama delivered his standard stump speech, pledging to end the Iraq war and minimize the influence of lobbyists in Washington, and blaming President Bush for rising costs of gas, health care and food, the mortgage crisis and workers' fears about delayed retirement.
"People right here in Pittsburgh," he said, "you know it in your own lives. We've dug a big hole for ourselves. We've got to put it back together.
"I'm running to challenge Washington."
Obama also was to meet with steelworkers and attend a town-hall meeting before traveling this weekend to Johnstown in mid-state, a Clinton stronghold, and then to the Penn State campus, where he has the support of many students. The tour will continue east into next week, toward Philadelphia.
Both Clinton and Obama predict Clinton will win Pennsylvania, the sixth largest state and a key state in general elections. What may matter more is the margin.
Clinton now leads 52-36 percent in a compilation of recent statewide polls, according to RealClearPolitics. Clinton also has the endorsements of popular officials, including Gov. Ed Rendell.
If she can extend her lead in Pennsylvania, it might improve her chances of coming from behind and winning over enough super-delegates to overtake Obama at the national Democratic Party convention this summer.
But the more Obama can narrow her lead in Pennsylvania, the more momentum he may give himself going into the remaining primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, and the better his prospects may be for clinching the nomination.
At this point, neither Obama nor Clinton can win the nomination with pledged delegates alone, but Obama leads that contest.
A Pew survey released Thursday showed his national standing didn't appear to have been permanently damaged from the controversy this month over some of his black former pastor's racially divisive sermons. Pew's findings suggested that Obama's speech on race, given amid the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., boosted him with voters, although as a group, working-class whites remain distrustful of him.
Clinton has the support of many of those white voters throughout the state, while Obama is expected to do better in Philadelphia, which has a large African-American population, and in highly educated and younger areas around the state's many colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, a voter-registration push in the lead-up to the state's primary has netted at least a 4 percent increase in Democratic voters, and those new voters are expected to turn out disproportionately in favor of Obama.
Obama told the morning crowd in Pittsburgh that Clinton "seems to think that all we need to do is change political parties and then just kind of work the system," but that "we don't just need to play the game better in Washington, we need to put an end to the game-playing in Washington."
Robert Strovers, 52, a photographer, who attended that speech, said that message appeals to him. "I like that he's not been entrenched in the establishment," he said of Obama. Still, Strovers said he's undecided about whom to support.
He's concerned about the racial overtones of some Obama supporters and detractors alike.
"I don't know if the country is going to really support a black president," said Strovers, who is white. "It seems like he does have a lot of broad-based support, but I wish the whole race card wasn't so prominent, the whole race issue."
Also in the audience was Jeannine Campbell, 43, an autoworker whose General Motors plant nearby is slated to close. Unlike Strovers, she's firmly behind Obama and said that in the past couple of weeks she's been so turned off by what she sees as Clinton playing the race card that if Clinton is the nominee she won't support her in the general election.
Campbell, who's black, cited several incidents lately: Clinton's suggestion that Obama wasn't enough opposed to Louis Farrakhan, Geraldine Ferraro's comments that Obama was only leading because of his race, and Clinton's statements that she wouldn't have stayed with Wright's church.
"I think she's gotten desperate. She's trying to divide the country racially," Campbell said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008