HAZLETON, Pa. — This bleak former coal town in northeastern Pennsylvania occupies a unique perch in this year's presidential contest.
It's the hometown of "Obama Girl," the New York City model of YouTube fame whose racy videos proclaiming her crush on Barack Obama are definitely not campaign-sanctioned. Her parents still live here, and her unlikely career break has gotten older, working-class whites talking more than they otherwise might have about the young black politician from Chicago.
This is Clinton country, however. It's close to Scranton, home to Hillary Clinton's father, grandparents and great-grandparents, and it's full of white ethnic working-class voters, who've sustained her campaign so far, especially in the Rust Belt.
Then, too, there's Hazleton's place on the front line of the illegal immigration debate. When an influx of undocumented workers changed the city's character and took a toll on school, hospital and public safety budgets, Hazleton adopted headline-grabbing measures to punish companies that employ illegal immigrants and fine landlords who house them. Other cities followed, but last year a federal court threw out the law. The ruling's under appeal.
All these forces are coming to a slow boil as Hazleton looks to Pennsylvania's primary on April 22 and to the general election in November. If this slice of hard-times country mirrors how Pennsylvania ends up voting, there's hope for Clinton.
On West Broad Street, the scruffy main drag, one passes a billboard for Spanish legal services, a Latina beauty salon and storefronts that reflect the city's German, Polish, Italian and Irish roots.
Just past them, Obama Girl's mom, Roseann Ettinger, is tapping her savings to keep her vintage clothing and jewelry shop, called Remember When, afloat.
The store used to be open daily; now it's open only on Saturdays and by appointment. Foot traffic waned as longtime businesses closed and immigrant-related crime troubled old-timers. Meanwhile, high oil prices took their toll; between the Ettingers' nearby home and the store space, the cost of a month's heat approaches $3,000.
Photos of their daughter Amber Lee Ettinger, 26, better known as Obama Girl, plaster the store's walls. In them she's modeling her mom's 1960s and 1970s outfits. People call or drop by to say they saw Amber on TV — and Roseann Ettinger thinks about supporting Obama. But she's apathetic.
"Nothing appeals to me about what I've heard yet" from any of the candidates, she said.
Husband Terry Ettinger is a registered Republican, but the veteran is "very disappointed" in his party. He admires John McCain's military background but not his immigration stance. He likes Obama's speeches but worries that there isn't enough substance beneath the rhetoric.
Hearing about Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, makes Terry Ettinger mad. "It's the black philosophy of the white people holding them back," he said. "That they can just say one side of it and have the congregation cheering — when I don't think it's true!"
Obama Girl rents a place in New Jersey but still considers Hazleton home. Her parents say she plans to vote in Pennsylvania's primary. But her dad says nobody should confuse her public persona with how she'll vote — which he says is nobody's business.
A couple blocks east, at Jimmy's Quick Lunch, Clinton's the favorite of many regulars.
"I like her backup man," said retired machinist Ronald Duser, referring to former President Bill Clinton. "And her family's from Scranton. She seems to be an honest person, just like my wife."
Of Obama, Duser said: "I'm not crazy about voting for a colored guy, but that's not why I don't support Obama. I'm not prejudiced. I just like Hillary."
A couple tables over, Jean Fetterman, a foster grandparent, said of Clinton: "Oh, I love her. She's a very intelligent person, and she has her husband who went through this."
She scoffs at the idea of voting for Obama: "I don't want to be a Muslim!" She looks dubious when told Obama is Christian. "Then why did he go see what's-his-name over in Iraq, that Lama?"
She isn't clear about whom she means. She may have seen a photo of Obama wearing traditional clothing during a visit to Africa. "I don't care what color he is, I don't care if he's pink," she said. "I don't think he's got the same education Hillary has, and he's so young. He's arrogant, too."
Rosella Sheppard, 62, plans to support McCain because she's a Republican, and her son, who's in the National Guard, will leave for Iraq in the fall. "I'm not a war person, but I do feel we need to address the terrorists," she said.
Democrats already outnumber Republicans by close to 2 to 1 here. But McCain's sympathetic approach toward immigration may cost him Republican support too, perhaps even from the city's mayor, Lou Barletta, who's using his activist role in the immigration debate to challenge the local Democratic congressman.
Barletta said he's invited McCain and the two Democrats to Hazleton to discuss immigration, but McCain declined and Obama and Clinton haven't responded.
"If you feel illegal immigration is a serious issue, how could you come to Pennsylvania as a presidential candidate and not come here?" Barletta said. "I do believe Hazleton does play a role in this presidential election because of what we represent."
Further east on Broad is a small Obama campaign headquarters, opened last month. Some locals drive by just to see if it's real.
"We're in Clinton country; we make no bones about that," said Elaine Curry, a medical librarian who helped set up the office. "But I've always broken from the pack."
Her husband, Bob, who hails from Philadelphia and manages a Barnes & Noble in Wilkes-Barre, said he thinks "there is an undercurrent" of Obama support in town "that has not been tapped into." He notes a successful recent voter registration drive.
Volunteers there embrace Obama's talk of hope, change and unity, and say Hazleton could use more of all that.
Jenna Umbriac, 24, who left for college, volunteered in Africa and San Francisco and is back for a few months before starting graduate school, said she was a Republican until her Obama conversion.
"People living in this area, they have an almost innate inability to see outside the area," she sighed. "We're part of a larger picture."
ON THE WEB
See Obama Girl's latest pro-Obama video.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008