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Romney seizing Pa. opportunity

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 1:26 a.m.

John Opfar sat in the front row of a short riser at Consol Energy's South Park R&D facility just before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took to a makeshift stage.

Opfar, 31, is a safety inspector at Bailey Mine, 40 miles south in Greene County, in what can only be described as an engineering marvel -- the country's largest underground coal mine.

He said he likes what he hears from Romney, doesn't think Romney is at all like the descriptions in most press accounts, and cannot wait to vote for him: "He talks about what is best for the region and what is best for the country, growing our economy and creating jobs.

"That's all I need to hear."

By all accounts, this Western Pennsylvania coal miner (who could be on the cover of a Ralph Lauren catalog despite his hardhat, safety glasses and beige jumpsuit) should be supporting Barack Obama.

In spite of his working-class roots, Opfar said "that is not happening."

Two hours later, Romney was across the state in the cavernous warehouse of Stephanie "Sam" Fleetman's Chester County trucking company. Kimberly Wise, Fleetman's executive vice president, said her boss started Mustang Expediting in her parent's attic with a single phone line and, over three decades, grew it to more than 40 employees.

Wise has worked at the trucking company for 24 years. She's voted for presidential candidates of both parties but, after Romney's visit, said she is "absolutely" voting for him.

Most of the media coverage of the Fleetman event centered on whether Romney will pick U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate after the Florida freshman joined him for a town-hall meeting in nearby Aston.

The real story, however, was the large number of women attending the event and the crowd's enthusiasm.

Romney spent time in Pennsylvania to plug holes in his demographic support: In the west, he pitched working-class Democrats and independents; in the east, he made an economic case to women, younger voters, Rockefeller Republicans and disenchanted Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008.

With Rubio, he reached out not only to Hispanics but to tea party supporters (by promoting a restoration of the American dream) and to students at Delaware County's many colleges (by saying that having half of new college graduates unemployed or underemployed is "unacceptable").

The Jacksonian-Jeffersonian voters who will swing this election in key battleground states are especially plentiful in the Keystone State and are most dissatisfied with the president's performance.

Pennsylvania tends to be a great tease for Republicans in general elections; 1988 was the last time a GOP presidential candidate won the state. Yet, because Pennsylvania is four points more Democrat than Ohio, Florida or Nevada, a close race here means those other states have left Obama.

"That is a problem," conceded Dane Strother, a Democrat strategist. "Romney sees opportunity in Pennsylvania and he is not shy about going for it."

Strother said coal country is a good story for Romney to tell and he is "absolutely" working to fill the gaps with voters of all denominations across the state.

"Look, he is not a dumb guy," Strother explained. "He knows he might not win Pennsylvania but playing there is smart. And if he can tighten the margins there, the president is in trouble."

The latest poll by Purple Strategies, conducted in 12 states that will make or break this race electorally, shows a swift tightening in those key battlegrounds, with Romney making remarkable gains on Obama in a very short time.

An interesting juxtaposition in the data shows Americans want to be optimistic (the trend line on the economy is better and people tend to think the country's best days are ahead) but they are staring reality in the face (jobs are hard to find, children won't do as well in the future), so they feel pessimistic.

Obama will blame it all on George Bush, the GOP and "fat cat" somethings, and will claim he is helping; Romney will blame it all on Democrats and Obama. Both will try to wear the "leadership for a better future" mantle.

Whichever campaign is more successful at fixing the blame, at owning the future, will probably win.

Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. Call her at 412-320-7879. Email her at: szito@tribweb.com

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