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On the Road: Western Pennsylvania

“I walked five miles to get out of Pittsburgh, and two rides, an apple truck and a big trailer truck, took me to Harrisburg in the soft Indian-summer rainy night. I cut right along. I wanted to get home…. That night in Harrisburg I had to sleep in the railroad station on a bench; at dawn the station masters threw me out. Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof?”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Michelle at Univ. of Pittsburgh -

So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”

Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”

In this economy, racism is officially a luxury. How is John McCain going to win if he can’t win those voters? John Murtha’s “racist” western Pennsylvania district, where this story takes place, is some of the roughest turf in the nation. But Barack Obama is on the ground and making inroads due to unusually strong organizing leadership.

In Washington County, a bellwether in this traditional swing state that John Kerry carried by a mere 552 votes out of over 96,000 cast, the Obama campaign’s mood is optimistic but very cautious. The campaign has registered over 4,000 new voters in this county, and enough statewide since the primary season to push the Democratic registration edge to over 1.2 million.

Still, Barack Obama wasn’t competitive in the primary, and getting volunteers, knocks and phone calls was tough over the summer. “After the primary many of the Obama supporters were tired and were enjoying their summer,” according to longtime resident and Obama Neighborhood Team Leader Greg Roth, whose house was used as a staging location during the primary. “Also, it took some time for some of the Hillary supporters come around.”

As the campaign shifts into GOTV (get out the vote) mode, its universe of targeted voters begins to change. “We know who our voters are,” said Roth. “Now we just have to go get them to vote.” Asked if the racism resistance to Obama would inhibit volunteer effort here, “We had probably 200 people last night show up to our GOTV training in Washington, and it’s a complete 180 from the tough summer months.”

Over in Indiana, PA and Northern Cambria, PA, volunteers fielded complaints of a massive wave of ugly robocalls both paid for by John McCain’s campaign and those paid for by third parties. The third party call was interactive, and purported to be from Barack Obama himself. The call starts out reasonably, and then “Obama” asks what the listener thinks is the most important issue. Whatever the response, “Obama” then launches into a profane and crazed tirade using “n***er” and other shock language.

From what we’ve seen, this IS the McCain ground campaign. Robocalls count as “touches” on voters, as do direct mail pieces such as this one. As David Plouffe said in today’s fundraising letter to supporters, “These tactics are all that the McCain campaign and their allies have left.”

In Pittsburgh, we attended Michelle Obama speech at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial on Pitt’s campus. The crowd received her with adoration, and she didn’t disappoint, delivering a 45-minute speech to an assembled group of roughly 2,000 on the personal nature of the economic crisis, education, costs of the Iraq War, and health care. She urged the audience not to get complacent, even as polls in Pennsylvania showed a widening race. Work “as if we’re 20 points behind,” she said.

“Barack Obama, as far as I’m concerned, was always the underdog. He is still the underdog, will be the underdog until the day he’s sitting in the Oval Office. We take nothing for granted.”

Strongly directed from the candidate himself, Obama’s campaign organizers are taking nothing for granted, and the relentless organizing beat goes on. To accommodate the more spread out nature of the turf in west-central PA, over in the more rural upper half of Cambria County, Obama’s aggressive campaign has organized its volunteers to improvise with phonebank and canvass staging locations out of apartments and offices after-hours.

“Our first night about a month ago,” said volunteer Jim Sabella, “about four of us huddled around a one-bulb lamp to make calls.” The apartment the volunteers used for the phonebank hadn’t even had the electricity turned back on yet, and so they had to improvise. “We patched it through from the neighbors with an extension cord and just decided, we will do whatever it takes. Enough is enough, and we can’t take another four years like the last eight.” Now well-lit, the phone bank hosts several volunteers nearly every night of the week.

Eighteen days. Philly burbs, here we come.

Windmills -