EASTON, Pa. — The morning specialty at Tracy's Cafe in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley is fresh fruit waffles, but regulars have been feasting on politics lately.
"You can't go through a day without being engaged in a conversation about the presidential race," said state Rep. Bob Freeman, a frequent customer. "The valley is the place to watch. Whoever carries the valley will probably be the one who carries the state."
With Tuesday's Democratic primary days away, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling over a prize that will either extend her never-say-die quest for the presidency or likely secure him the nomination.
This old farming and manufacturing region, now a health care and high-tech corridor in eastern Pennsylvania, is a good place to measure the mood.
"It gives you access to almost any type of voter that you could imagine," said Christopher Borick, the director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Nestled between coal country, the Philadelphia suburbs and the Delaware River, the Lehigh Valley has been a swing district and something of a political bellwether. Voters have picked the winner in every statewide election for governor — Republicans and Democrats — since the mid-1980s.
Interest in the Clinton-Obama race is high, from the comfortable middle-class enclave of Victorian homes on Easton's College Hill, to the working-class neighborhoods on Bethlehem's old industrial South Side, to the upscale developments near the interstates.
More than 6,000 new voters have registered in Lehigh County since last April, and nearly six times that many since the last presidential contest in 2004.
In the blue-collar neighborhood of Mountainville, south of downtown Allentown, Tony Rodriguez said he plans to vote next week for the first time in his life. The 45-year-old railroad conductor and father of five said his reasons are purely economic.
"For working-class people to be able to make a living, it's just getting harder and harder," Rodriguez said as he and his wife, Amelia, walked into the Sunrise Diner for lunch. "We should at least be comfortable, and it seems like we're living week by week."
He plans to vote for Obama, who campaigned in the valley last month and drew several thousand people for a speech at Muhlenberg.
"I was very impressed," said Kim Kaufman, a 19-year-old Muhlenberg freshman from Media, Pa. "I think he was more open-minded toward changing everything. I just want this war to end soon."
Clinton also has supporters, such as Tracy Meilinger, 37, who owns the cafe.
"I like her battling," she said. "I like the way she speaks. She takes the brunt of the media. I don't think they give her a fair shake."
Carl Rohrbach, a 59-year-old accountant from Bethlehem, said he thinks Obama is too liberal. He prefers Clinton's "moderate stance, similar to her husband's."
But the race has become closer than Rohrbach ever imagined. "I thought Clinton would have hooked it by now," he said.
Clinton hasn't visited the valley. Her campaign has sent former President Clinton, who also attracted a big crowd at Muhlenberg, and daughter Chelsea. But given the stakes, her supporters have been asking, when is she going to show up?
A Clinton spokesman said the senator could visit Lehigh this week. But her double-digit lead in the state has eroded, and her local backers are worried.
"My sense is now it's probably a toss-up," said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. "She really needs to get here. I've told them that many times."
The region has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Farms used to divide the valley into neat patchworks, textile looms spun out silks and cottons for big apparel makers and mammoth blast furnaces glowed in the night, making steel in 3,000-degree heat.
Development has gobbled up the farmland, and the namesake Bethlehem Steel plant, the industrial heart of the valley for more than a century, closed in 1995. An entertainment and arts complex anchored by the Sands casino of Las Vegas is planned to take its place.
The valley is a success story. Health care and high tech are the new economic engines, and job growth has been nearly three times the state average. The region ranked 30th in Forbes magazine's latest annual survey of "Best Places for Business and Careers."
The valley is also politically fertile. Its blue-collar workforce, large number of seniors and a growing Hispanic population should help Clinton. Students from the six private colleges, a Penn State branch campus and two community colleges should boost Obama.
So, too, should a wave of younger, more educated and affluent residents who've moved in over the last two decades. Many are commuters, drawn by the easy access to metropolitan New York and New Jersey.
But new ventures locally, such as the North American headquarters of Olympus, have lured more.
"When we moved here, I felt it was a provincial area, but I think it's changed," said Sherman Cox, a 50-year-old research scientist who transplanted his family from California a decade ago.
Cox said he was leaning toward Obama because of "his message is more unifying," but could vote for either candidate.
That's how a lot of Democrats feel.
"I've been weighing which candidate might be better rather than which one might be the least bad," said Ed Erwell, 63, an engineer in Allentown. "I think this is best thing that's happened to the Democratic Party in a long time."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008