Salena Zito

The narrative of this historic presidential election has come down to which candidate will close the deal and win the trust of Pennsylvania voters.

From the outside looking in, Pennsylvania has become a metaphor for all that is wrong with our country when it comes to race -- especially those of its Democrats who are soft on or wary of Barack Obama.

Yet on the inside, Pennsylvania is far from its broad-brush portrayal as racist. It is not the color of the candidate; it is the culture he represents.

Say what you will, Obama's "spread the wealth" tongue-slip hit home here.

Most Pennsylvania Democrats who live outside of Philadelphia are very Midwestern in their values and their votes.

If they lose their jobs, they go out and get two more to make up for the loss. They do not take handouts and they don't whine; they provide for themselves and their families.

What are these people made of? I can remember listening as a child to my union-Democrat immigrant grandparents saying they never took "relief" during the Great Depression -- and they were raising five children, had no education beyond the fourth grade and spoke broken English.

Their voting patterns and other traditions passed along to their sons and daughter will help to decide this election.

"Pennsylvania is America," says former Democratic Party executive Mark Siegel. "To understand the voters there is to understand this country."

For weeks, opinion polls have suggested that Obama will clobber John McCain here. McCain stunned Democrats and Republicans alike by deciding to fight it out in Pennsylvania when Obama was clearly ahead in every poll by double digits.

"This race is still not a slam-dunk for Barack Obama," says Pennsylvania Democrat Mark Singel, a former lieutenant governor and acting governor.

Pennsylvania voters move pretty dramatically in the very last days of the campaign, he says.

Kent Gates, a Republican strategist, says the Pennsylvanians who will decide the state race and possibly the presidential election "are not the people who vote early or place bumper stickers on cars and signs in yards."

"They don't attend rallies and scream or chant. They will just quietly vote and decide the presidency without the impact of the national media or experts."

Gates is referring to Democrats.

"In an odd way, many liberals are tone-deaf about normal people, who worship God, country, sports and their communities and don't care all that much about politics," says former Villanova political scientist Bob Maranto.

Maranto says what's causing Pennsylvania voters to give Obama a second look goes beyond Obama's "share the wealth" notion: "They are suspicious of him and his Ivy League buddies who have never run anything in their lives (but) that now want to run the country."

He adds that "it is all in the arrogance."

Liberal Democrats often have a hard time in this state because they don't understand why voters in poor, rural areas don't "vote their pocketbooks." Frankly, these are not very materialistic people; if you live in Johnstown or in Elk County and you care that much about money, then you will leave for better opportunities in the big city.

People who stay behind don't care as much about money as they care about their families or communities.

To ambitious politicians such as Obama or running mate Joe Biden, that's just crazy; they can't imagine folks who care more about family or community than about getting ahead.

Oh, this doesn't mean that people in places like Elk County or Centre County aren't ambitious -- they are. But rather than focus on material needs, they focus on being better parents or better hunters, better Christians, better whatevers. It's a different, more laid-back life.

Much the same can be said for the Pittsburgh region, where many people live within a few miles of where they grew up.

Who will close the deal in Pennsylvania? The polls say Obama; the pundits, too.

Let's see what the voters say.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.