In 1950, during the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur launched a truly daring military maneuver — outflanking the enemy and making a sudden amphibious landing behind North Korean lines at Inchon. The invasion was almost a complete surprise, forcing the North Koreans to flee inland. Within days MacArthur had recaptured the capital of Seoul and changed the entire conflict.
Mitt Romney is attempting a political equivalent of an Inchon landing in Pennsylvania, a state that hasn’t voted Republican for president since 1988. His campaign and allied groups have poured in $12 million in last-minute advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Right now, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows President Obama with a 3.9-point lead in the state but it has been shrinking. A Susquehanna poll released Saturday suddenly shows the race tied at 47 percent for each candidate. The Senate race is now in play with polls showing Tom Smith, a retired coal executive, to be very close behind incumbent Democrat Bob Casey.
The enthusiasm for Romney among Republicans in the state is palpable: He drew some 25,000 people on a bitterly cold night to a rally in Bucks County outside Philadelphia on Sunday night. Paul Ryan drew 3,500 people to a Harrisburg rally on Saturday. Romney will be back in the state this morning for a rally in Pittsburgh.
Democrats have responded with something approaching panic. Bill Clinton made four last-minute stops in Pennsylvania — in Philadelphia, Blue Bell, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. The Democratic campaign in Pennsylvania had previously been barely visible, and there are reports that the traditional Democratic “street money” operation in Philadelphia wasn’t preparing an all-out effort because they viewed the state as safe for both Obama and Senator Casey.
Why does Romney believe he can snatch Pennsylvania away from Obama? The playing field is different than it is in neighboring Ohio, where countless millions have been spent on both sides. The Obama campaign invested in slashing TV commercials attacking Mitt Romney early in Ohio, defining him for many as a heartless corporate raider. The Obama ground game in Ohio is fueled by dozens of offices and a powerful union army fresh from last year’s referendum defeat of a package of collective bargaining reforms signed by GOP governor John Kasich.
“Ohio is in a sense poisoned ground,” a Romney adviser told me. “You can only win by trench warfare and it’s not a sure thing.”
In Pennsylvania, it’s Obama that has the damaged public image. He is deeply unpopular in the western part of the state’s coal country due to onerous EPA regulations that have cost the industry jobs. In the conservative central part of the state, voters still tell me they smart over Barack Obama’s 2008 description of them as “clinging to guns and religion.”
In the Philadelphia suburbs, Romney-Ryan is the first GOP candidate in a generation that doesn’t raise cultural hackles. “The suburbs didn’t thrill to Bob Dole, they weren’t comfortable with George W. Bush as a swaggering Texan and John McCain had Sarah Palin on his ticket,” says Colleen Sheehan, a professor at Villanova University. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, looks and acts like someone who could be at home on the Main Line.
As for Philadelphia, the fearsome get-out-the-vote machine that routinely delivers massive majorities for Democrats may be rusty this year. Because Pennsylvania was viewed as in the bag for Democrats, resources are being deployed to the state late, and in some cases, the damage from Hurricane Sandy is making it difficult for unions to send in workers from neighboring New Jersey and New York. The state’s new voter-ID law, which this year will ask voters for photo IDs at the polls but still allow them to vote if they fail to produce them, may nonetheless act as a deterrent against the voter fraud — a practice even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a Philadelphia native, admits the City of Brotherly Love has been infamous for.
Should Romney win Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes in an upset, the pressure to carry Ohio’s 16 electoral votes will be dramatically reduced and he has several new paths to victory. If his surprise attack succeeds, it will go down in political history as one of the best-executed — and best-hidden – political maneuvers ever.