SCRANTON -- John McCain played the Irish card yesterday, and it sure looked like a winner.
Mr. McCain became the first Republican presidential candidate to appear before the Irish-American Presidential Forum since it began in 1984. It usually meets at its home base in New York City.
The Arizona senator talked partly about issues of special interest to Irish Americans, pledging to reappoint a special U.S. envoy who is helping the new Protestant-Catholic coalition government keep peace in Northern Ireland, and vowed to seek a temporary worker program so 50,000 Irish immigrants now in the U.S. can work legally.
"That program didn't make me popular with some people in my own party," he said, "but I took those tough votes anyway. My opponent, Senator [Barack] Obama, just took a hike. Union bosses don't want a temporary worker program and Mr. Obama voted with the union bosses."
Former President Bill Clinton first appointed the special envoy 10 years ago, and President Bush named another. But Mr. McCain asserted that Mr. Obama doesn't seem interested in keeping the envoy. The audience of 2,000 at the Scranton Cultural Center, clearly on Mr. McCain's side, booed loudly.
Mr. McCain also talked about national issues, expressing some hesitation about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's massive $700 billion plan to bail out failing financial institutions and urging expansion of energy development, including nuclear power, wind, water, natural gas and oil drilling.
The town hall meeting had the feel of a high school pep rally, with thunderous cheers and applause, numerous standing ovations and even some "waves" from the enthusiastic crowd.
One woman jumped up and shouted, "Thank you for picking Sarah Palin" as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. When the woman complained about media investigations of the Alaska governor, Mr. McCain said: "I assure you she can take it. She's a reformer and will bring reform to Washington. That's what Americans want badly."
Several U.S. senators were there, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Joseph Lieberman, Mr. McCain's close friend and a former Democrat who is now an independent. Mr. McCain joked to the crowd, "I give you that great Irish senator from Connecticut -- Joe Lieberman."
A dozen of those present said in interviews that Scranton has many citizens of Irish descent, most of whom are Roman Catholic, blue-collar (many having worked in the northeastern Pennsylvania anthracite mines), who historically have been union members and Democrats.
Mr. McCain's appearance "is very significant for a Republican," said Adrian Flannelly, an official of the New York City-based Irish Radio Network and a founder of the forum. "In the past, Republicans had always conceded this forum to Democrats," Mr. Flannelly said. "We have yet to get a commitment from Mr. Obama" about speaking to the forum before the Nov. 4 Election Day.
One Democrat who has spoken to the forum is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, who got 75 percent of the vote in the Scranton area when she defeated Mr. Obama in the Pennsylvania primary in April. For his running mate, Mr. Obama chose a Scranton native, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
McCain strategists are hoping that his visit yesterday will score points with pro-Clinton voters in the area and help him win Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes.
There were indications that Mr. McCain was making progress. Cathy Hinesley said she is a lifelong Democrat, but would vote for Mr. McCain if the election were today. She said Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, is heavily Democratic, as is neighboring Luzerne County, home to Wilkes-Barre.
"We're socially conservative Democrats, Reagan Democrats, and Hillary did well here," Ms. Hinesley said. "John McCain has served his country all his life. We have to elect a leader for America."
Michele Martin of Scranton was among people holding "Discerning Democrats" signs, meaning that they are registered Democrats but are voting for Mr. McCain. "He has a pro-life voting record, and he has the leadership skills and experience to be president," she said.
Mr. McCain's running mate also was in Pennsylvania yesterday and spoke at a rally in Delaware County.
"Americans are tired of politics as usual," Ms. Palin told the crowd. "... That's why we need to take the maverick of the Senate and put him in the White House."
The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed. Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.