Shippensburg, Pennsylvania — If John McCain wins Pennsylvania on Tuesday — a question that’s shaping up as perhaps the most critical of the campaign — it will be because of places like this. Situated on the border between Cumberland and Franklin counties, Shippensburg is in the south-central part of the state. Like other towns in the area, it’s between 90 and 95 percent white; about 15 to 20 percent of people over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher; and the median household income is about $45,000.
Voters in the Democratic primary in this area chose Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama by about a two-to-one margin. Just to the east, Obama did a bit better. To the west, Clinton cleared 70 percent. In 2004, George W. Bush won 71 percent of the vote in Franklin County and 64 percent in Cumberland.
#ad#Which is why Sarah Palin has come to Shippensburg, to Heiges Field House on the campus of tiny Shippensburg University. It’s freezing outside, or at least it feels like it’s freezing in the high wind, but thousands of people are waiting outdoors for a chance to see Palin. When they finally make it inside the building, they cheer when Palin goes on the offensive, hitting Barack Obama on his associations, his tax plan, his energy plan, his lack of experience — pretty much the whole spectrum of issues. And they really cheer when she says, “It is not mean-spirited, and it is not negative campaigning, to call someone out on their record, and their plans, and their associations.” And then does just that.
It’s connecting; this is an audience that knows its Bill Ayers from its Rashid Khalidi. But here in Pennsylvania, white working-class voters seem to remember one thing about Obama above everything else: his remark, made six months ago, that when the economy goes bad, people like them, in places like this, “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” That rankled them at the time, and it rankles them now.
“We were referred to as ‘bitter’ because we treasure the Second Amendment and choose to practice our faith on a daily basis,” Rob Kauffman, a local state representative, tells the crowd before Palin arrives. “Ladies and gentlemen, they just don’t get it.”
Huge cheers. And still more when Palin talks about “a candidate who would lavish praise on working people when they are listening, and then talk about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when they aren’t listening.” As the audience roars, she adds, “You know what I’m talking about! We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Shippensburg and another way in San Francisco!”
Here’s a tip for the McCain-Palin campaign: If you really want to win Pennsylvania, you might want to make sure that everyone in the state hears Obama’s “bitter clinging” soundbite at least once an hour from now until Election Day.
And while you’re at it, send Palin to central, southern, western, and northern Pennsylvania — pretty much every except Philadelphia. “I love her, and I was so thrilled when John McCain picked her,” a woman named Janice, from Mechanicsburg, tells me. “I think she’s more qualified than Barack Obama. They say she’s not qualified, but they ought to look at the top of their ticket.”
“I’m proud to be a woman when I listen to her talk,” Dolly from Chambersburg tells me. “I always said I would never vote for a woman. I thought they belonged in the home. But she has convinced me.”
#ad#On the other side of the gymnasium, there’s a woman with what appears to be a red, white, and blue lampshade on her head, standing next to a man with a toy elephant sitting stop his hat.
“Is that actually a lampshade?” I ask.
“Why yes it is,” she says. “I’m just like Sarah. She shops at consignment stores, and I got this at a yard sale for 50 cents.”
“Actually, I stand her in the corner when we get home,” says the man.
The woman points to a motto on the lampshade: SEE THE LIGHT — VOTE RIGHT.
It turns out they are the Bakers — Lindi Independence, as she calls herself, and Freedom Fred, as she calls him. They are husband and wife, live in Clear Spring, Maryland, and today Lindi, a travel agent, has chartered a bus on which she brought 55 McCain supporters from Maryland, where they get no visits from any presidential candidates, to Pennsylvania, where you see them all the time.
Freedom Fred is retired, after 30 years at the Mack Truck factory in Hagerstown, and even though he doesn’t live in Pennsylvania, he is proudly clinging to those things that so troubled Barack Obama. “If he gets elected, you can kiss your guns goodbye,” Fred tells me. “You can kiss your freedom goodbye, too.”
As we talk, Palin finishes shaking hands and heads toward the door. As it turns out, several hundred people weren’t able to fit inside, so rather than stay outside in the cold, officials took them to another building across the street. Palin decides to pay them a visit. But not before a change of clothes.
Here at Shippensburg University, they have a motto — not the official motto of the school, of course, but one everybody knows: SHIP HAPPENS. Students wear t-shirts with the phrase block-lettered across the front and nobody bats an eye. So after leaving the Field House, and out of range of most photographers, Palin dons a SHIP HAPPENS shirt of her own. Of course the overflow crowd loves it. And if you’ve taken as much grief as Palin has, for clothing as well as nearly everything else, why not?