The region’s voters head to the polls Tuesday to choose between a president they helped buoy into office four years ago and a resurgent Republican aiming to unseat him.
But while New Jersey appears all but certain to tip its favor to President Obama, tightening polls and a late surge in Republican activity in Pennsylvania has Mitt Romney hoping to become the first GOP nominee to carry the state in nearly a quarter century.
The outcome in the Keystone State, which pundits predict could have one of its closest presidential contests in decades, may influence high-profile down-ballot races for U.S. Senate and attorney general and determine the tenor of campaigns here for years to come.
“Pennsylvania’s status as a swing state is on trial here,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College. “In a year where everything is so close, if the state doesn’t swing Republican, it’s hard to imagine the party will give it the time of day after six losses in a row.”
On the other hand, Borick said, “if the state does play a pivotal role in a Romney victory, welcome back to prime time. We’re a star again in terms of electoral calculus.”
Recent surveys suggest that Romney has chipped away at Obama’s Pennsylvania advantage, after a midsummer détente in which the former Massachusetts governor appeared to all but cede victory here by pulling his ads off the air and focusing his resources in more competitive environs.
A Susquehanna Polling and Research survey released Saturday showed the candidates at a tie, each with 47 percent of likely voters. Others put Romney within the margin of error of the president’s lead, though many predict a narrow Obama victory in the state.
Still, the narrowed margins have drawn a $12 million influx of ad dollars to the state from Republican-affiliated outside groups and some last-minute attention from the candidates themselves.
Romney is expected to spend at least part of his Election Day at a rally in Pittsburgh, his campaign said Monday. The planned visit comes after a Sunday rally in Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County, that drew an estimated 25,000 riled-up Republicans out in near-freezing temperatures.
“I’ve never seen a crowd like that,” an ebullient Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason said in an interview Monday. “They started arriving in the afternoon and stayed until the end. I’ve been to events before where we had to whip people to come.”
Not so fast, said state Democratic Chairman Jim Burn. “You go back to 1992, you’ll see the Republicans in Pennsylvania saying that they have momentum and they’re going to swing the state. It’s the same broken record.”
Hoping to stanch any late surge by his opponent, Obama deployed surrogate-in-chief Bill Clinton on Monday to campaign stops in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montgomery County, and Scranton.
What effect this late focus on Pennsylvania in the presidential contest means for races down the ballots depends on where you look.
In South Jersey, where voters will cast ballots for offices ranging from U.S. Senate to local school boards, incumbents were trying to weather the whims of the presidential storm.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez leads Republican Joseph Kyrillos, according to recent Inquirer New Jersey polling. Incumbent Reps. Rob Andrews, a Democrat, and Republicans Frank LoBiondo and Jon Runyan were defending their seats against the GOP’s Gregory Horton and Democrats Cassandra Shober and Shelley Adler, respectively.
Pennsylvania Republicans believe a Romney victory in the Keystone State could provide just the push they need toward wins in other races. Their best chance for an upset lies in the contentious battle between U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and his rival, Tom Smith, a retired Armstrong County coal executive.
For months, Casey’s political fortunes have risen and fallen in the polls with the president’s. Even more than Obama, he began this campaign season with a sizable lead. But after a grueling campaign in which Smith dumped more than $17 million of his own money into trying to brand his opponent an Obama puppet, the Republican has managed to narrow that gap within striking distance.
“Everything changes down ballot if Mitt Romney wins,” said Gleason, the GOP chairman. “If Mitt Romney . . . when Mitt Romney carries Pennsylvania, he’ll pull Tom Smith in.”
While Democrats concede the Casey-Smith race is closer than they would like, they are optimistic about fending off any late GOP ground-gaining in the battle over who becomes the state’s next top prosecutor.
Democrat Kathleen Kane’s lead over rival David Freed has only widened in polls as the margins in the Senate and presidential race have contracted. The most recent Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll, conducted Oct. 23-25, had Kane, a former Lackawanna County prosecutor, with a 20-point lead over Freed, Cumberland County’s district attorney.
Philadelphia-area voters will also cast ballots in races for state treasurer and auditor general as well as a long list of state legislative and congressional seats, including one up for grabs in the contentious Bucks County battle between US. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Kathy Boockvar.
But this year, the fight between party rivals may come down to whether they can get their supporters to the polls.
Democrats fear that confusion over last-minute changes to Pennsylvania’s voter-ID law could scare off supporters who don’t believe they have the proper identification to cast a ballot. Last month, a Commonwealth Court judge postponed enforcement of the statute’s photo-ID requirement until the next election.
Despite concerns in New Jersey that residual power outages from Hurricane Sandy could interfere with voting across the state, more than 500 polling locations damaged during the storm had been relocated or had their power restored, said Ernest Landante, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who serves as secretary of state. All were expected to open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
For the 100 polling stations that remain inaccessible, Guadagno authorized voters to cast provisional ballots at any voting location or send their vote via e-mail or fax, with special restrictions.
The Pennsylvania Department of State reported that all of its 9,251 locations statewide – except for one polling place in Riegelsville, Bucks County, that had to be moved – would open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. as originally planned.
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