Betting on Pennsylvania

As the race for the White House continues apace, our man on the road - Jonn Elledge - reports on the

Anyone going to their mailbox in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, the other day was in for a nasty shock: a flyer featuring a picture of a foetus with a rope around its neck. Beneath it was the caption: 'Obama won't stop this.'

No prizes for guessing who that came from.

The diner waitress who told me this story was horrified, but probably not for the reasons the Republicans would like. 'What if someone who'd been through that saw it?' she asked. What if some kids did, someone added.

This isn't the only nasty ad to pop up in the state this week. A (now unemployed) Republican staffer sent an email to some of the state's Jewish community warning them against 'making the wrong decision.' 'Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake,' it said. 'Let's not make a similar one this year!'

Godwin's law, alas, doesn't apply in elections. Nonetheless, such tactics suggest a certain panic on the Republicans' part.

John McCain is betting everything on Pennsylvania. It looks like a long shot - it hasn't gone Republican in 20 years, and polls show him 10 points behind. But it would allow him to add 21 electoral votes to his column, while focusing on a single part of the country. And it would slash the swing he needs everywhere else to get him to victory. This, one suspects, explains the decision to throw everything he's got at the state.

Despite the polls, it might just work. The state has been Democratic largely because of the areas around Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. But there's a big rural chunk in between that's far more friendly to Republicans.

And there are also questions over how comfortable the state is with the idea of a black president. Last week Congressman John Murtha got in trouble for announcing that his constituents were racists. The Obama campaign in Erie, in the north west of the state, have twice had to remove roadside signs reading "Vote right, vote white"; more than one voter has told them straight out that they won't vote for a black candidate. And the Obama supporting waitresses in Dunmore speak of a mysterious man known only as "pork chop guy", who told a diner full of people that no one who isn't an old white man would ever get his vote.

There are some signs that such prejudice is a luxury people can no longer afford - this anecdote is a nice, if unrepeatable, example - but the Dems aren't taking any chances. Cathi Zelazny, who's running the campaign in Erie, is planning to flood the polling stations with lawyers to ensure no one is denied their vote on a technicality. And if she has to, she says, she'll physically drag people to the polls. "If Obama loses because we lost Pennsylvania," she adds, "I'll have to leave to state."