Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton transformed the annual St. Patrick's Day parade into a blocks-long campaign rally as she was marched and waved before an almost uniformly welcoming crowd.
Mrs. Clinton was flanked by a show of her Pennsylvania support, Gov. Ed Rendell, Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, as she was cheered without interruption under a gray sky.
Chants of "Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry'' greeted the New York senator, who sported a long green scarf over her black overcoat. While a group of enthusiasts for her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, followed her along the sidewalks of Grant Street and the Boulevard of the Allies, the atmosphere was friendly throughout. Mrs. Clinton offered a thumbs-up gesture toward one knot of Obama partisans as she turned the corner from Grant Street.
"This is a great parade,'' Mrs. Clinton said from the reviewing stand before rushing across the state for another parade date in Scranton. "May the luck of the Irish be with you all.''
Mr. Rendell described the crowd's enthusiasm as "off the charts,'' but said, "She'll be campaigning hard for the next six weeks. Our lead is not going to stay at 18 points.''
"We really gave her a good reception," Mr. Onorato said. "She was very pleased.''
Mrs. Clinton's presence even drew some newcomers to Pittsburgh's 139-year-old parade. Kevin and Jennie Bosetti, of Cecil, came to the parade for the first time, in part because of the opportunity to lay eyes on Mrs. Clinton. "We got to see Hillary," gushed Mrs. Bosetti. "We love Hillary."
While many love parades, Secret Service agents may not be among them. Her already alert team of agents darted wary glances to the left and right as members of the crowd launched friendly volleys of Mardi-Gras-style beads toward the parade's front rank.
At different points, both Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl showed their reflexes in intercepting string of beads that were coming close to the former First Lady.
While supporters of Mr. Obama were clearly in the minority of the political displays along the route, dozens of green "O'Bama" signs dotted the route along with the more numerous Hillary placards. Among his supporters was Franco Harris, who sported a prominent Obama button, as he marched beside city Controller Michael Lamb.
Just over 16 percent of the state's population claimed Irish ancestry in the 2000 Census, according to the Pennsylvania State Data Center. The Pittsburgh and Scranton regions, where Mrs. Clinton divided her campaign day, were both traditional centers for Irish immigration.
Mr. Obama will be in the region tomorrow, for a rescheduled town hall meeting in Monaca, Beaver County. Senate votes forced Mr. Obama to cancel a planned event there last Friday. Doors will open at 10 a.m. Monday for the 11:30 event at the Community College of Beaver County. It is open to the public but tickets are required and may be obtained on a first-come basis at The Dome, 1 Campus Drive, on the campus in Monaca. Tickets from the canceled Friday event will also be honored.
One issue that's emerged in this campaign is a debate over Mrs. Clinton's claim that her experience includes contributions on foreign policy issues, such as Northern Ireland and Kosovo, during her husband's administration.
Greg Craig, former director, Policy Planning Office, U.S. State Department under President Clinton, said yesterday it was "a gross overstatement of the facts for her to claim even partial credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland. She did travel to Northern Ireland. First ladies often travel to places that are a focus of U.S. foreign policy. But at no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that ultimately produced the peace."
The Clinton campaign staged a conference call yesterday afternoon in which several members of Congress active on the Ulster issue attested to Mrs. Clinton's central role in the process that led to the Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland.
Jake Sullivan, deputy national security adviser for the campaign said if elected president Mrs. Clinton would demonstrate her focus on Ireland by appointing a special Northern Ireland adviser on the White House staff.
That debate may not be resolved soon but a clear test of Mrs. Clinton's diplomatic skills looms when the Democratic contender is inevitably asked to say whether Pittsburgh or Scranton hosts the better St. Patrick's Day Parade.
During the parade yesterday, participants were engaged in a political debate of a different sort: Did Mr. Ravenstahl make the right call instituting new policies to make this year's parade more "family-oriented?"
Mr. Ravenstahl increased the police presence and limited the time frame for St. Patrick's Day festivities in Market Square to between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., as opposed to the previous window of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Despite the $2 Jell-O shots, winding lines at portable toilets and "Patrick was a Saint. I ain't" T-shirts in Market Square yesterday, according to 22-year-old Nicole Harbert, this year's crowd was smaller and less rowdy than in previous years. Ms. Harbert, a California University of Pennsylvania student decked out in green beads and green eyeshadow, adjusted to the later start time by hosting an 8:30 a.m. "kegs and eggs" party in her West Mifflin apartment.
"We want 7 to 7 back," shouted a male friend of hers, wearing a green foam 10-gallon hat.
But two blocks away from Market Square, those focused on the parade on the Boulevard of the Allies had a different perspective.
Jeff Spang had traveled from Ford City to see his 9-year-old and 7-year-old daughters march with the Ford City drill team. He'd had to move away from his sidewalk seat to avoid beer spills and littered beer cups.
"It needs to be more family oriented," he said. "We're here to see our kids and half the people here are drunk."
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at 412-263-1562. Anya Sostek can be reached at 412-263-1308. First Published March 16, 2008 4:00 AM