Pa. Independents Are Obama's Primary Concern

Sen. Barack Obama has done very well in states that allow independents to vote in the Democratic primaries. But Pennsylvania is not one of those states. The Obama campaign is furiously trying to get Independents to switch their voter registration by Monday's deadline.

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The Pennsylvania primary is still a month off, but this week, Barack Obama may get an early indication of his appeal in a state where Hillary Clinton is their favorite. Pennsylvania is a closed primary, which means you have to register as a Democrat in order to vote. And today is the last day to switch party affiliation.

As Joel Rose reports from Philadelphia, the Obama campaign is pushing hard to lure new voters to the Democratic Party.

JOEL ROSE: With the registration deadline looming, Obama volunteers aren't wasting any time.

Ms. ALLISON GOLD(ph) (Obama Volunteer): You're registered to vote?

Mr. CHUCK ERINSON(ph): You know what, I'm a registered independent, so I need to change my - can you do that or someone's going to do that.

Ms. GOLD: I can do that. I can do it right here.

ROSE: Right here is a windy street corner, outside a sold-out indie rock concert in Philadelphia where volunteer Allison Gold helps would-be voters like Chuck Erinson fill out the state registration form.

Ms. GOLD: That you're already registered.

Mr. ERINSON: I am.

Ms. GOLD: Yeah. And in number 2, you want to check change of party.

Mr. ERINSON: Change - here?

Ms. GOLD: Yup. That's right.

Mr. ERINSON: Thank you.

ROSE: Obama did well with Republicans and independents who voted in other Democratic primaries and caucuses. So Gold says she's been working for weeks to bring new voters into the Democratic Party.

Ms. GOLD: At events where we think there's usually going to be - have young people, African-Americans, possible unregistered voters, new residents to our area, and we target it.

ROSE: She's looking for people like Sasha Sartwell(ph), who just moved to Philadelphia from Seattle.

Ms. SASHA SARTWELL: I don't usually affiliate with either party. I kind of think they serve the same people.

ROSE: But here you are, you registered as Democrat.

Ms. SARTWELL: I am, because I think that the - from what I hear, the Pennsylvania primary is kind of important. I'm not a fan of Hillary Clinton, so I'd like to see Obama win.

ROSE: The Obama campaign says it has well over a thousand volunteers working to register voters across Pennsylvania. The Illinois senator is also reaching out across the aisle with a new radio ad targeting Republicans and independents.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): America is listening; not just Democrats but Republicans and independents who've lost trust in their government but want to believe again.

ROSE: But polls suggest that independent voters here may not support Obama as overwhelmingly as they did in earlier contests. Formerly independent voter Chuck Erinson says he'll probably vote for Hillary Clinton because he doesn't like Obama's ties to preacher Jeremiah Wright.

Mr. ERINSON: That actually really upset me, being a gay man and hearing like anti-gay and anti - all kinds of things. It's really - you know, I just - it sort of disappointed me that he just, at some point, didn't get up and go, you know what, I just really don't want to be a part of it.

ROSE: The controversy over Reverend Wright has helped Clinton open a double-digit lead in the latest polls. And it may have emboldened the New York senator to go after more new voters.

Ms. SUE APPLEBAUM(ph) (Volunteer, Hillary Clinton Campaign): Hi, my name is Sue, and I'm working here in Pennsylvania with Senator Hillary Clinton.

ROSE: Volunteer Sue Applebaum works the phones at a makeshift office near the Ben Franklin Bridge. Clinton staffer Brendan Gilfellan(ph) says the campaign is mounting its own last-minute registration drive.

Mr. BRENDAN GILFELLAN (Staffer, Clinton Campaign): Absolutely. We don't cede any ground in terms of bringing new voters into this process. We think that we're going to lay claim to our fair share of those voters.

ROSE: Whatever happens on April 22nd, the excitement around this primary election could be good for the party in the long run. Since last November, the number of registered Democrats in the state has grown by more than 11,000, while the number of Republicans has declined by 13,000.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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Correction March 31, 2008

In this story, a voter suggests that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has made anti-gay comments. NPR has not been able to find any evidence that Wright made such comments. Wright has supported the ordination of gay clergy. He also started a singles group for gay and lesbian members at his church. Our story should have acknowledged this.

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