New York Sen. Hillary Rodham will collect the endorsements of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl today as she courts voters in the city in her campaign for the upcoming Pennsylvania Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, her opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, dismissed suggestions that he was downplaying the state on a day when U.S. Senate budget votes forced him to cancel a planned Western Pennsylvania appearance. In a telephone interview with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Obama maintained that he would be making a major effort in Pennsylvania, while acknowledging that Mrs. Clinton starts the campaign with significant advantages here.
"I think we're going to be campaigning as actively as we can," he said. "We'll be devoting a lot of time, a lot of money ... devoting a lot of staff resources."
Mr. Obama, whose campaign aides have disputed the Clinton camp's depiction of Pennsylvania as a make-or-break state for both rivals, said it didn't diminish the state's importance to point out that Mrs. Clinton is favored in a state where "she's supported of a popular governor."
While forecasting an active campaign here, Mr. Obama stopped short of predicting that he would reverse Mrs. Clinton's advantage, but added, "I don't agree that she's unbeatable."
The Democratic rivals were together for a series of federal budget votes on the Senate floor yesterday. Their campaigns announced that they would be together again, on April 16th in Philadelphia, for what will be the 21st debate of the Democratic campaign. ABC will broadcast the encounter from the city's Constitution Center.
Underscoring the Obama campaign's focus on the states down the road, their announcement of the new Pennsylvania debate was coupled with the news that they had accepted an invitation to yet another debate -- on April 19th in North Carolina, a state voting after Pennsylvania in the nomination calendar.
In a Clinton campaign conference call, Gov. Rendell joined her aides in questioning Mr. Obama's effort in the state, and arguing that a loss here would cast doubt on his viability in the general election. Mr. Rendell called the approach "off-putting," and said, "It makes no sense."
On his way to Washington for yesterday's voting, Mr. Obama again rebutted those characterizations. "I will spend a lot of days in Pennsylvania. I think there's no doubt that Senator Clinton is heavily favored there, but we're going to compete actively, and we want to try to win the state like we try to win every other state," he said, according to a transcript of his remarks on the Time.com web site.
"We have not selectively said which states we think are important; we think they're all important, and Pennsylvania is important. Now, we do think that the other nine states afterward are also important, so we're going to be spending time there as well. But there's no notion whatsoever that we have ceded Pennsylvania. We're going to try to compete there as hard as we can."
In Texas and Ohio, where Mr. Obama lost the popular vote -- and even in Mississippi, where he had a clear victory Tuesday -- exit polls suggested that late-deciding voters had broken in Mrs. Clinton's favor.
Speaking to the Post-Gazette, Mr. Obama denied that those findings pointed to an enduring problem for his campaign. He speculated that in some recent states, a preponderance of the late-deciders were Clinton supporters who had been wavering, and he noted that in other states his leads had increased over time.
Mr. Obama also defended the tone of his campaign, after weeks filled with sharper exchanges with Mrs. Clinton. "I haven't gone after her character, or said she's unfit to be commander-in-chief or things like that. ... Now, those are sometimes-difficult distinctions to draw, but I feel that we've been able to draw a line.
"The other style of politics is part of what has prevented us from really solving problems, like getting health care to millions of people across the country who don't have it or making college more affordable," he said. "When we have a slash-and-burn politics, it creates long-term bad blood. I'm interested not only in winning the nomination, but in winning the presidency and being able to govern."
Mrs. Clinton will appear today with Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl to accept their endorsements. The two executives add to her already-wide support among the state's Democratic hierarchy. In addition to Gov. Rendell, the New York senator has the backing of major figures including Philadelphia Mayor Mike Nutter and state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Ravenstahl insisted that he was still neutral. "I haven't made a decision yet," he insisted. "I like them both. ... I think Democrats across the country are struggling with it."
The embrace of the two local officials may help the Clinton campaign by adding to its air of local support, but it does not bring an immediate change in the all-important delegate count.
Neither are among the superdelegates who may be crucial in choosing the party's nominee. They are likely to go to the Denver national convention as part of the group of at-large delegates that both campaigns are allowed to choose.
Neither Mr. Onorato nor Mr. Ravenstahl could be reached last night to acknowledge the planned endorsement, which was first reported on the Boston.com web site, but a Clinton campaign official did confirm the report last night.
Mrs. Clinton later today will headline a rally in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Still later, she will have a private meeting with Western Pennsylvania labor leaders. Tomorrow, she will enlist in another semi-political city tradition, by appearing in Pittsburgh's St. Patrick's Parade. For a double-dip of Blarney, she plans then to travel on to Scranton for their annual Hibernian rites.
James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.