Salena Zito
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GETTYSBURG– The owner of Tommy Gilbert’s Hobby Shop expects summer’s tourist season to be impacted by what he calls an “alarming” rise in gasoline prices.

“It’s been a lean winter despite the mild weather,” he said, his shop empty except for a family member who sat complaining about town politics.

Eight miles east along the Lincoln Highway, the town of New Oxford greets travelers with signs promising “Antique Capitol of Central Pennsylvania.” Other small towns may dispute that, but a generous number of antique shops do dot New Oxford’s main street.

“See those license plates in our parking lot?” asked a cashier at The Antique Mall. He pointed to Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and District of Columbia tags on the cars parked outside.

“Our business isn’t local. We rely on tourists,” he explained. “After Christmas, our business was up over 25 percent from the year before. By summer, we might be down double that.”

Located where Livingston Shoes once were made, the shop now holds weekly ghost tours. As in many small touristy towns, such tours help to supplement the business when business is slow.

“I blame this economy on Obama,” the cashier added.

That may not be entirely fair. Yet it is at the root of why the president hasn’t moved forward in Pennsylvania polls for years.

Yes, years.

His problem is not just an economy that is slowly, painfully recovering. It is the symbolism of how he is leading the country that drags him down, such as getting busted on an open microphone telling Russia’s president that negotiations on missile defense will be different after he wins re-election.

Or his misfired attempt to align with voters frustrated over gas prices by saying they were getting hit twice – once at the pump and then by providing billions of dollars in tax subsidies to oil companies.

Yes, we are getting hit twice – but the second slam that regular folks want to see addressed is the skyrocketing of food prices, not a fake attempt to blame oil companies.

Voters want solutions, not blame-gaming.

Pennsylvaniavoters are more a combination of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideals and values than they are Democrats or Republicans. And that’s why Barack Obama is tied in the Keystone State with Republican Mitt Romney.

The national media narrative is that things look better for Obama. Yet drive across the state and talk to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian voters who supported him in 2008, and you will find today’s environment is nothing short of toxic for Democrats, especially Obama.

And there is no reason to believe 2012 will be a “throw the bums out” vote against all incumbents; Democrats do not appear to be building a political wave that will return them to power in the U.S. House. In fact, both sides agree that Democrats probably will win only a handful of seats from Republicans.

In Pennsylvania’s House races, where five Democrat seats went Republican in 2010, none so far appear vulnerable to an upset.

Most Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction; job growth has been weak and the untold story of those who stopped looking for work remains untold.

All the national polling shows Obama up in battleground states. Yet some analysts argue that is merely a temporary effect of contentious Republican primaries.

Voter turnout in 2012 also may not favor Democrats: Recent polling by Pew Research shows young voters now self-identify as Republican +11, compared to +32 for Democrats in 2008 – so a high turnout on college campuses might not benefit the president as it did in the last election.

West Newton sits 100-plus miles southwest of Gettysburg and New Oxford. Once a manufacturing center for radiators and boilers, it now is mostly a quaint suburb of Pittsburgh. Straddling the Youghiogheny River, West Newton is enjoying its own tourism boom, thanks to trout fishing and the Great Allegheny Passage trail that attracts bicycling enthusiasts.

On a recent unseasonably warm Sunday, West Newton’s bike shop bustled with families and weekend-warriors renting bikes and eating lunch on the shop’s deck.

“Hey, it’s five bucks an hour to rent a bike,” said one of the owners. “It’s about the only vacation some locals can afford this year.”

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Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.