Despite "racist" sentiments in Western Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is building momentum and should win in Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. John Murtha said yesterday.
Mr. Murtha, a 17-term Democrat from Johnstown, told a group of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial writers that Pennsylvania voters seem to be warming to the idea of voting for a black man for president.
"There's no question Western Pennsylvania is a racist area," said Mr. Murtha, whose district stretches from Johnstown to Washington County. "The older population is more hesitant."
Mr. Obama finished second to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the April primary, but in the past few months his campaign has been making gains, especially among the senior citizens and veterans groups he has spoken with, Mr. Murtha said.
"I think Obama is going to win, but I don't think it's going to be a runaway," he said. "I think he wins Pennsylvania."
It hasn't been easy for Mr. Obama to build a base across the state, Mr. Murtha said, despite the Illinois senator being "one of the most brilliant organizers I've ever seen." Part of the reason is that Mr. Obama is a minority candidate, he said, but recently voters seem to be putting that issue aside.
In a statement issued later yesterday, Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey told The Associated Press: "It's naive to think that race or gender doesn't play a role in a voter's perception of a candidate. Mr. Murtha makes the point that while race may be an issue for some, it's evident that voters today are concerned about the issues that truly matter -- issues like the economy, health care and energy independence."
It was the second time this year a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat questioned whether the state's white voters would cast ballots for Mr. Obama. In February, Gov. Ed Rendell told the Post-Gazette editorial board that the state has pockets of conservative white voters and "I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."
Mr. Murtha added that Republican Sen. John McCain's efforts have been stymied by the country's economic crisis under the current Republican administration.
Across the country, Mr. Murtha said, he isn't seeing the type of enthusiasm for the presidential election that he has seen in the past. He said part of that might be attributed to the national economic crisis.
"I think [voters are] discouraged by what's going on," he said. "I don't want to say despondent -- just serious.
"People are madder than hell [about the economy]. I've gotten more mail about that than anything."
It will be important for Congress to keep a close watch on how banks and other institutions use money from the economic recovery plan, he said.
In addition to the economy, Mr. Murtha said, the biggest issues facing the new president will be managing the withdrawal from Iraq, rebuilding the military, developing a health care plan and deciding how to proceed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may be the trickiest issue because there are so many tribes of militants that it could require a full military effort, which Mr. Murtha said many Americans probably would not support.
Ed Blazina can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1470.