DOYLESTOWN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A new poll released on Wednesday is the latest indication that Pennsylvania, which has not voted Republican in a presidential race since 1988, could do so again next week.
In one month, an 11-percentage-point lead held by President Barack Obama has dwindled to 4 points, according to a survey by Franklin and Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research.
While few are predicting a Romney victory, the state is now in play, with its haul of 20 electoral votes, two more than Ohio.
That explains why the “super PAC” American Crossroads, supporting Republican challenger Mitt Romney, has begun running ads in the state, and why the Obama campaign is responding in kind.
Ann Koberna, a Democratic activist and former school teacher in the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, did not need a poll or ads to see that support for Obama was eroding ahead of next Tuesday’s election.
She noticed it just after the first debate, on October 3, which boosted Romney’s national poll numbers after his strong performance. All of a sudden, she said, Romney-Ryan lawn signs started popping up in Doylestown and now they are all over the place.
“It’s troubling,” she said, noting she recently planted an Obama sign in her front lawn as a “counterbalance.”
“I know people who voted for Obama last time but aren’t this time,” Koberna said. She attributes the shift less to the debate than the economy. “They are looking for someone to blame.”
The Franklin and Marshall poll supports her observation.
Of the registered voters polled, 47 percent said Romney was the “most prepared to fix our economic problems,” versus 42 percent for Obama. That was almost exactly the reverse of the result in Franklin and Marshall’s poll taken in September.
The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania has been stubborn, increasing slightly in September to 8.2 percent, versus the national rate’s decline in the same month to 7.8 percent.
She suspects the debate was a factor too.
A lot of people changed their minds after the first debate, the Franklin and Marshall poll showed, with 22 percent of those who did citing the debate as one of the reasons.
“For the first time I can remember, we have no shortage of volunteers,” said Joseph Flood, a local Republican committeeman.
“Before the debate, Romney supporters were mostly anti-Obama. Now they are strongly pro-Romney,” said Flood.
“For months, people had seen Romney gaffes. In the debate, they got to see him unfiltered for 90 minutes. Many were almost surprised to be impressed by him,” Flood said.
Obama rebounded with stronger performances in the second and third debates. But the initial encounter has proved to be pivotal in Pennsylvania just as it has nationally.
“The Obama and Romney campaigns and super PACS are going to flood our airways,” said political scientist G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall poll. “This has become the default state to Ohio.”
‘POLLS ALL OVER THE MAP’
If Romney cannot get Ohio, where the Real Clear Politics polling average gives Obama a small edge, Pennsylvania may be his next best shot at capturing an undecided big state, Madonna said.
The conventional wisdom is that to win a statewide election in Pennsylvania a candidate must do well in Bucks County and surrounding jurisdictions near Philadelphia.
“We are a bellwether,” said Pat Poprik, chair of the Bucks County Republican Party, noting there were 188,900 registered Democrats and 178,000 registered Republicans in the county.
Democrat Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia, scoffs at talk of new Romney momentum in the state.
“The polls are all over the map,” Rendell said, adding he was confident Obama would win his state, which last voted for a Republican nominee when George H.W. Bush won all but 10 states in his 1988 race against then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
“But we are not going to take anything for granted,” Rendell said, promising an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day. “We are ready to roll.”
In Doylestown, population 8,400, both sides are busy calling undecided voters with the help of volunteers like Republican Ellen Cox and Democrat Iris Perlstein.
Cox, a small-business owner and Navy Reserve officer, said: “Republicans are thinkers. We didn’t fall behind Romney right away. But after the first debate, it went through the roof.”
“The people I talk to on the phone are saying, ‘Romney, Romney, Romney,'” Cox said. “They are really excited. I invite thinking Democrats to take a look at him.”
Perlstein, clinical director of programming for psychiatric health at the Princeton University medical center, voiced frustration about Romney backers she had talked to on the phone.
“They say Obama hasn’t done anything. I tell them, ‘He ended the war in Iraq, killed Osama bin laden and passed healthcare,'” Perlstein said at the Obama campaign’s office in Doylestown. “They say that isn’t enough.”
“A lot of them are angry that he has not turned the economy around in four years,” Perlstein said. “What do they expect? He doesn’t walk on water.”
As Perlstein telephoned undecided voters, Ed Taylor, a self-described member of the conservative Tea Party group, stood a block away, waving a placard that read: “Hey Barack, we’re baroke,” and “Save the USA, fire B.O.”
Taylor is no Romney booster, however, expressing the view of many recent converts that, as he said, “He’s better than Obama.”
The Obama campaign remains confident, so much so that Obama’s chief strategist bet his mustache on it Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show.
If Obama loses Michigan, or Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, Axelrod promised, “I will come on Morning Joe and I will shave off my mustache of 40 years.”
Reporting By Thomas Ferraro. Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney