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7 October 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Obama riding high on the downturn?

In Pennsylvania everywhere are the signs of how much effort, and money, has been pushed into the bat

By Rachael Jolley

Snuggled in a forested corner of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh is prime stomping ground for both Obama and McCain’s campaign teams as the days tick by towards the election.

With Pennsylvania identified as a key state for both sides, money has poured into persuading the burghers of Pitt to switch their vote to the other team.

All the teams have swept through the essentially blue-collar city, where steel was big business until the 1970s and rough little hillside neighbourhoods conjure up scenes from The Deerhunter. Stocky men with Steelers caps, sit at kerbside seats comparing notes on the football team – this big city’s essential entertainment – and thoughts on last night’s fireworks celebrating Pittsburgh’s 250 year birthday.

This is a no-nonsense world where men are big and hearty and celebrate their close-knit family by displaying enormous black and white photos of their children in their bar or cafe, or inside their work ID.

Pittsburgh, a city that has known economic downturn before, is already starting to hurt as Wall Street plunges. Worries about jobs are the discussion over a plastic pint of beer, and shops are already standing empty, even in the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods.

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Two weeks ago the Democrats here, and across the US, were despairing.

Now things are picking up for Obama as the economic indicators head downwards.

“It was looking bad and I thought we had no chance,” says my informant, a mover and shaker at the Democratic National Committee who worked on previous presidential campaigns.

A fortnight later, with the words ‘crisis’ and ‘economy’ spread all over the front pages of the newspapers, Obama’s picked up a favourable wind, and he is polling ahead of his opponent.

Pennsylvania, a key state, is now leaning towards the Democrats, although the race is still tight.

But everywhere are the signs of how much effort, and money, has been pushed into the battle for this state’s hearts. Campaigners are out knocking on doors, and even tourists are being asked if they have been registered to vote.

In the smart little suburb of Sewickley where the steel magnates built their opulent homes in the 19th century, and dining rooms are the size of most people’s apartments, signs on the lawns appear to be split evenly between Obama and McCain. Extremely surprising, says a friend who has returned to the neighbourhood after a few years away, and went to the local school.

This pretty-pretty village where social life still revolves around country clubs and girls in white dresses have coming out balls, should be a Republican stronghold, but the Obamaites have taken on the native conservatism, and signs displayed on these perfect lawns show they have obviously won converts.

For the first time anyone can remember there is a Democratic campaign office in the heart of the village, next to the expensive gift stores and the cafes, something no-one would expect here, says the Democratic insider.

Obama’s ballsy campaigning tactics have raised eyebrows among the old-school Democrats who worry about him spraying money out across states where he is not expected to win.

But fierce on the ground campaigning has already led to some surprising results on unusual turf, like McCain pulling out from Michigan last week just before the Biden-Palin debate.

But no one is confident about predicting a result yet. Veteran campaigners believe anything could happen, and the polls could change direction again any day.

Around the dinner table at the expensive Sewickley country club in the green, rolling hills, one young parent says he thinks McCain is the best Republican in the bunch, and if he was to vote Republican this would be why.

His classmates, gathered for a school reunion, split into two camps, small business owners who favour McCain and everyone else, favouring Obama.

But even in this rich retreat the Republicans sound defensive, and Democrats could take strength from that. These preppy types in chinos and smart jackets are voting that way because of taxes, they say, and are keen to point out that they are “liberal’ on social issues, distancing themselves from the madness/social conservatism of the Palinesque side of the Republicans.

One thing is for sure, there is no chance of anyone forgetting about this election. Every conversation at bus stops, dinner tables and bars eventually turns around to the topic. While campaigners on the streets are desperate to add the last few names to the electoral roll.

For four more weeks, the election might even push out the Steelers as everyone’s favourite obsession.

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