Obama finds a less friendly Pennsylvania on his return

When President Obama touches down in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, he may find some things have changed since he won the state just over a year ago.

Obama made more than 45 stops in Pennsylvania last year and defeated Republican rival John McCain there by 54.7 percent to 44.3 percent.

But politics are shifting in Pennsylvania, which is lately drawing comparisons to New Jersey and Virginia, both of which elected Republican governors this year after lining up for Obama in 2008.

“I think the political environment in Pennsylvania has dramatically changed since last year, and now the Republicans are looking increasingly competitive,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College In Lancaster, Pa.

Obama was the fifth consecutive Democratic presidential candidate to carry Pennsylvania, and winning the 21 electoral votes from the Keystone State helped him clinch the presidency.

But just below the national political radar, Pennsylvania last month held statewide judicial races in which six of the seven contests on the ballot were won by Republicans.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Democrat who switched parties earlier this year, is struggling for re-election with a 29 percent job approval rating, according to the latest Franklin & Marshall poll. Sixty-six percent in the state said it was time for a new senator.

Obama's job approval rating in the Franklin & Marshall Poll was just 40 percent, lower than his average national job approval rating of just below 50 percent.

The president's trip to Allentown is the start of his “White House to Main Street” tour, highlighting jobs and the economy. And it follows a familiar White House playbook: Get the president out of Washington and out into key states, where the local news coverage is more favorable and he can talk about his agenda.

The president's Allentown visit is “part of a commitment to visit communities across the country over the next several months,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Obama “will speak with workers and share ideas for continued economic recovery.”

The trip is also an opportunity for Obama to shift the focus back to jobs — a tough political issue for both parties heading into next year's elections.

“We cannot hang back and hope for the best when we've seen the kinds of job losses that we've seen over the last year,” Obama said at a White House jobs forum.

The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is 8.4 percent, below the national unemployment rate of 10.2 percent.

Even so, Republicans are not taking Obama's Pennsylvania visit in stride. The Republican National Committee is running radio ads in the state mocking Obama's speech and local stops as a “stimulus summit.”

“A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there,” the ad says, “pretty soon you're talking about real money.”

The Franklin & Marshall pollsters found Pennsylvanians downbeat about the economy and jobs, pessimistic about the state's future and unhappy with the national health care reform debate.

Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican whose district includes Allentown, is hosting his own jobs event in town as rejoinder to Obama's visit.

Like other members of his party, Dent has been critical of the limited results from the president's $787 billion stimulus plan in creating jobs.

“I certainly welcome the president to our area,” Dent said. “I hope that he seizes the opportunity to listen to the diverse viewpoints that I hear from the people of this district.”

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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