Politics & Government

Small-town Pennsylvanians still unsure of Obama and McCain

Stephanie Severn, a Bloomsburg, Pa., sandwich shop owner, once walked four miles in 2004 to hear President Bush speak. Now she's thinking seriously of voting for Obama because "We need to make a change."
Stephanie Severn, a Bloomsburg, Pa., sandwich shop owner, once walked four miles in 2004 to hear President Bush speak. Now she's thinking seriously of voting for Obama because "We need to make a change." Christopher Gardner / MCT

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — For Jeane Chilcote of Clarks Summit, the John McCain-Barack Obama choice comes down to maturity.

"My thinking has changed and mellowed since I was Senator Obama's age," the 67-year-old accountant said. "I'm more realistic and less idealistic."

That in a nutshell sums up why McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Democrat Obama are locked in a too-close-to-call duel for votes in northeastern Pennsylvania, a swing area in a swing state.

Travel through these economically battered, largely white areas, and the refrain is the same: People are fed up with Republican policies on war and economics, but they worry that Obama lacks experience.

It's impossible to know who has the edge. For every voter like Kay Fiorello, a Blooming Grove former Democrat who said "I don't think Obama believes in the U.S. " there's a Republican loyalist like Stephanie Severn, a Bloomsburg sandwich shop owner.

She walked four miles in 2004 just to hear President Bush speak. Now she's thinking seriously of voting for Obama because "We need to make a change."

The intense wooing of these voters has already begun. Turn on WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre, and McCain and Obama ads seem to be everywhere. McCain spent a day in Wilkes-Barre and Bethlehem this week, answering questions at a town hall meeting and shaking hands at a shopping mall. Obama backers gathered at Bloomsburg's Town Perk restaurant to map out platform positions.

Voters tend to agree on this much: If Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee, she'd sweep the region. Clinton beat Obama 3 to 1 in the April primary in Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre, and 3 to 2 in Lehigh County, which includes part of the Bethlehem area. A lot of her supporters have doubts about Obama.

"I liked her views on education, and she's a woman. Obama just doesn't have the experience she had," said Peggy Marshall, a Bethlehem teacher.

"I really liked Bill, and I felt Hillary was a very hard worker. McCain has that same sort of government experience," added Janet Wright, a Bethlehem hairdresser.

The ultimate decision here will come down to whether voters put greater emphasis on change or experience. Change comes slowly in these parts.

"It's old, it's white, it's conservative and it's Democratic," said Harold Cox, professor emeritus of history at Wilkes College. People here grew up Democratic, and Democratic nominees carried Luzerne and Lehigh Counties in every election since 1992.

But the area also has a disproportionately large number of seniors and veterans, a natural McCain constituency. Many don't easily accept change, and they feel they don't really know Obama.

Raymond Johnson, a Beach Lake retiree, an independent, thought "the country is so far gone to the Republican side, we need a terrific change to get back on track."

But Obama bothers him because he seems to change positions. "I didn't like that reversal on campaign finance. I wish he hadn't done that," Johnson said. Obama is the first major party candidate to refuse public financing of the general election campaign.

"My problem with Obama is not a problem of age," Johnson said. "It's a matter of his commitment."

Others were less polite, seeing Obama as almost an oddity.

Joseph Brosk, a retired corporate executive from Conyngham and an independent, noted, "His mother taught him his values, and she was a flower child of the '60s. I question his values."

Stephanie Cottrell, an Olyphant retiree, voted for Democrat John Kerry last time, but feels "we're not ready for a black president. A majority of the people are white."

Obama's best chance is with people fed up with the status quo.

Denise Moyle, a Bethlehem teacher, was a lifelong Republican until March. "I just don't agree with our whole war policy. I see it going nowhere," she said.

Pam Sriharsha, a Bloomsburg family therapist, likes McCain, but also lamented "He's a warrior. Obama's got more a feel for the world, about how we can make peace."

Few people talk about Iraq, though. At the Obama strategy session this week, supporters were asked to list issues in order of importance. The economy finished first, followed by the environment, health care and energy.

"I just don't think people feel it (Iraq) affects us here," said Laura Spatzer, a Bloomsburg saleswoman.

Most election talk centers not on issue positions but experience. Bloomsburg Mayor Dan Knorr, a Democrat, has a ready answer on that point: "Experience only goes so far if experienced people are going in the wrong direction," the 23-year-old mayor observed.

That sounds reasonable to Severn, who voted twice for Bush. This year, though, she's had to raise prices twice already at her sub shop and expects one more increase before fall. The price of cooking oil, flour and other supplies has doubled in recent months, and a turkey sub that costs $3 at the start of the year is now $3.20.

Worse, she said, "business is not what it used to be. People are staying home and cooking their own meals."

Obama alone won't turn her business around, but she figures he can at least try something new. "How much more of this economy can the public take?" she asked.

But this election remains up for grabs here, because of people like Chilcote, the Clarks Summit accountant who worries that Obama still needs seasoning.

"You have to learn to know when to say, 'My goodness, this isn't working," she said. "You gain that knowledge and patience from living day to day."

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