Company's coming for April 22

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And now, the deluge: Thousands upon thousands of campaign operatives and volunteers coming this way; a constant drumbeat of political advertising on the airwaves and Internet; phone banks and robo-calls on overdrive; sold-out hotels and conference rooms; stressed-out police departments managing crowd control at rallies and concerts; swarming national media, some already plying tired rust-belt stereotypes.

All this and more is headed to Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania, as neck-and-neck Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama train their sights on the delegate-rich territory in hopes of clinching the Democratic nomination for president.

The barrage -- "Circus doesn't begin to describe it," Democratic strategist Dan Fee told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week -- will be all the more intense because Pennsylvania is the only big state voting between now and the primary date of April 22. That means the state's voters will be the primary focus of the campaigns.

For all who've bemoaned the state's irrelevance because of its late primary date, this is a whole new ball game, and it promises to be a raucous one, with competing rallies and hard-charging speeches -- not to mention a profitable one for ad agencies, TV and radio stations and the hospitality industry.

It was already under way yesterday. Barely 24 hours after Mrs. Clinton's wins in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, volunteers in Harrisburg had signed a lease for her local campaign headquarters, armed themselves with a carload of yard signs and begun organizing the volunteer effort.

"The race is coming here and it is for real," said Brad Koplinski, a Harrisburg councilman who is helping coordinate the Clinton effort midstate.

"It is going to be a full-on battle. Sen. Clinton, Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton or their surrogates are going to be in this area at least once a week. It's going to be full on," he told 40 volunteers gathered last night at a senior center in Harrisburg.

"No one could have expected our late primary would produce this," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, who seemed a bit stunned by the development.

"After so many years of effective disenfranchisement, Pennsylvania voters have a chance to play a historic role in nominating a black or a woman candidate in one of the most important elections in our lifetime. I think there will be dramatic shifts in policy no matter who wins, and this state will play a big role. It doesn't get any better than that."

Voters should steel themselves for multiple campaign phone calls and political ads repeated ad nauseam, said a Texas voter who just went through the process in her home state. But, she added, the drawbacks are far eclipsed by the benefits of an energized electorate.

"I found it all really exciting," said Fort Worth resident Suzy Peacock, who works for a foundation. "No matter where you were, someone was talking politics. I can't recall it being like that in any other election. People were so engaged.

"I was standing in line at the airport talking to my friend about our candidate, and the person in front of us turned around to let us know that we were completely wrong and ridiculous, and then told us why. You have to be prepared for that kind of conversation.

"My advice is to enjoy the ride as much as you can, and be careful who you talk to in a loud voice because you never know who's listening."

Notebooks, microphones and cameras will be everywhere, if the calls to Gov. Ed Rendell's office are any gauge.

"We had a dozen calls from national media in the first 45 minutes of the workday," said spokesman Chuck Ardo, clearly pleased by the prospect of a national press corps traipsing from one end of the state to the other.

"It's going to be great for Pennsylvania once the candidates start touring," Mr. Ardo said. "A lot of people don't know much about Pennsylvania as a destination, but they're going to see it in a new light. The national coverage will deflect some of the outdated images that still persist."

That would include images propagated by Tom Brokaw on MSNBC, who on Tuesday night contrasted "sophisticated" Philadelphians with "industrial" Pittsburghers. Not that there's anything wrong with industry -- a lot of Pittsburghers wish we had more of it these days -- but some leaders think Mr. Brokaw showed himself to be stuck in a time warp.

"He's reading someone's playbook from 30 or 40 years ago," said Jim Burn, chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party. "Shame on him."

Still, Mr. Burn said, all the attention is "a good problem to have for a lot of reasons. It allows the leaders of the Democratic Party to promote this region and draw attention to the issues that are important to Pennsylvania. It's a win-win for both candidates and the voters of this state."

Keystone State voters will get a taste of what Iowans experience every four years because their caucus is the first political test for presidential hopefuls. Arthur Miller, professor of political science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said the experience is more blessing than curse.

"It gets a bit tiring. Not an evening goes by without three or four phone calls, so call screening becomes popular. But it's an opportunity to get involved, think about the issues and the candidates, and have a real impact on the outcome," he said. "People in Pennsylvania should be excited about it."


Staff writer Tracie Mauriello contributed from Harrisburg. Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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