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Democratic primary contest swells party’s ranks in Pennsylvania

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Posted: March 20, 2008 3:09 p.m.
Updated: April 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Democratic primary contest swells party’s ranks in Pennsylvania

Ellen Weese, left, a volunteer with the campaign of Democratic president hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., helps Timothy Snyder of Conshohocken Pa., switch his party affiliation at an Obama canvassing table in Wayne Pa., Friday, March 14, 2008.


    WAYNE, Pa. — Pennsylvanians are rushing in record numbers to sign up as Democrats so they can vote in the April 22 presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
    Many are lured by the historic drama of two U.S. senators vying to be the first black or female president. But the two campaigns also are busily recruiting independents, disgruntled Republicans and those who weren’t previously registered at all.
    Obama’s effort has generated the most fanfare as his campaign has laid down a steady drumbeat of radio ads and e-mails leading up to the deadline for switching or joining parties.
    ‘‘For real change, register as a Democrat by Monday, March 24,’’ advise Obama ads airing throughout the state.
    Only registered Democrats can vote for their party’s candidates in the state’s April 22 primary, and Obama is hoping the recruits will help him overcome Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s solid lead — 12 points in one poll taken last weekend. At stake are 158 delegates to this summer’s Democratic national convention — the biggest bloc of delegates still to be awarded.
    Since last fall’s election, statewide Democratic enrollment has swelled by more than 111,000 — an increase of about 3 percent in less than six months that state elections Commissioner Harry VanSickle said is apparently unprecedented. With days to go, Democratic registration is barely 5,000 votes shy of a record 4 million.
    ‘‘The volume is very large, very steady,’’ said Jim Forsythe, director of voter services in Chester County, a Philadelphia suburb where Democratic enrollment grew by nearly 7 percent — the second-largest gain among the 67 counties.
    The smaller statewide enrollments of Republicans and voters not registered in either party have both declined slightly.
    Neither the Obama nor Clinton campaigns will offer a public estimate of how much they contributed to the increased registration, and certainly other factors are at work.
    But hundreds of Obama volunteers have stepped up their voter registration efforts in recent weeks on the streets, on college campuses and in nightly telephone canvassing among the nearly 1 million registered independent voters. In earlier Democratic primaries where independents could vote, Obama has outpolled Clinton, 54 percent to 40 percent, according to exit polls.
    The Clinton campaign has also mounted a major registration effort in Pennsylvania, the first time in the primary season it has done so. While the former first lady has drawn most of her support in other states from traditional Democratic ‘‘base’’ voters, her aides believe she is positioned strongly enough in Pennsylvania to draw a significant number of independents, especially independent women.
    The Clinton campaign is using extensive phone banks to identify likely switchers, targeting voters ‘‘who fit the profile’’’ of the New York senator’s supporters and sending them registration applications upon request, said campaign spokesman Mark Nevins.
    While all of Obama’s ads urge non-Democrats to join the Democratic Party, he is using some regional targeting as well. The ad in the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg areas is tailored to young voters, mentioning Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and his plan to help loan-burdened college students. In the Philadelphia area, Obama’s ad specifically talks to Republicans and independents unhappy with the country’s direction and then recounts Obama’s role in passing ethical reforms.
    An Obama supporter, Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records, announced a ‘‘Hip-Hop Team Vote: Turn up the Vote’’ campaign at the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday that he hopes will register 15,000 to 20,000 voters before Monday. The group plans to use public service announcements from hip-hop recording artists and actors, including Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Wyclef Jean and Will Smith.
    Clinton’s campaign said Thursday it was kicking off a ‘‘March Madness’’ drive to register voters and stage rallies in Pennsylvania cities through Monday. The rallies will feature celebrities including America Ferrera, star of ABC’s ‘‘Ugly Betty’’ TV series, and Jehmu Greene, the first black president of Rock the Vote.
    Heightened interest in the Democratic contest and disenchantment with the Bush administration have likely spurred many Pennsylvanians to join the party on their own. More than a few Republicans have switched sides — at least for the primary.
    At a makeshift registration center that Obama volunteers set up on a sidewalk recently in this affluent Philadelphia suburb, one woman boasted that she and five friends — like her, all Republicans — had simultaneously changed their registrations to Democratic to vote for Obama, who she called ‘‘a fresh face’’ in politics.
    ‘‘I do feel he’s honest. I think he’s hard-working, and I think he can understand what the people are going through,’’ said Linda Lemmon of Kennett Square.
    But asked whether she would remain a Democrat through the general election, she replied, ‘‘I can’t say that.’’
    Mining the state’s computerized voter registry for trends, the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has found that:
    — Since January, more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians who were not previously registered to vote did so.
    — In that time, more than 68,000 registered voters changed their affiliation to one of the major parties, with those switching to Democratic registration outpacing those turning Republican by more than 3-1.
    — The nine counties with the biggest percentage increases in Democratic enrollment since last fall — more than 5 percent — are mainly in two tightly contested areas — the Philadelphia suburbs and the state’s vast central region. Despite the changes, Republicans still outnumber Democrats in all those counties.
    One man who registered to vote for the first time at the Obama station here in Wayne was Tzvetan Tzonev, a newly naturalized citizen from Bulgaria.
    But Tzonev said Clinton will get his vote, because Bill Clinton was president when he first arrived in this country and times were better then.
    ‘‘It was a fantastic time,’’ Tzonev said. ‘‘We thought maybe she will kind of continue this period of time, and we’ll be out of all this mess.’’
    One woman who stopped at the Obama table was Nina D’Iorio, already registered as a Democrat. She was carrying a bag of books including two by Obama.
    D’Iorio said she was leaning toward him and wanted to learn more about him. While she longs to ‘‘see a strong, powerful woman thrive’’ as president, she worries that former President Clinton might hold his wife back.
    Obama, she said, has ‘‘that JFK feel.’’
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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