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The Battle of Pittsburgh

| Sunday, July 18, 2004

Not since the Battle of Gettysburg has so much depended on the outcome of a struggle on Pennsylvania soil. Back then, the North believed that God favored its side in the struggle to keep the Union intact; all those who supported the South believed that God was pulling for them.

The 2004 presidential election is no less ideologically divided. Again, the North and South are pretty fairly split numbers-wise, but this time the combatants are addressed by tossing the old magnetic nomenclature in favor of colors -- red states and blue states.

Unlike Lincoln's times, the nation is not about to rupture, but our role in the world and the centrality of the American citizen may be charted for generations. The winning side will claim a mandate -- no matter how slim the margin.

For a while after 9/11, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory -- feeling our way along and making up much of our response as we went. But finally, the lines are well-drawn, the sides clearly defined and the choices easily identified.

And once again, either by serendipity or as a result of some supreme being's master plan, the fork in the road is squarely on Pennsylvania soil -- swing state soil. Even more specifically, this battle -- the election of the president -- is being fought in Pittsburgh.

In play

Give Philadelphia to the Democrats and the vast center of the state to the Republicans; politically fickle Pittsburgh is the only piece left to fight about. And in Pittsburgh, long ago a bastion of Democrat power, the voters have mastered the art of ticket splitting -- sprinkling their votes between Democrats and Republicans.

The newest quasi-resident of the region, Sen. John Kerry, comes by his Pittsburgh roots honestly. His wife Teresa Heinz Kerry is a philanthropic superstar in these parts and has maintained an impressive estate just outside the city. Because of this, he is a few "yinzes" away from adoption by the locals.

So it was here in the 'Burgh that Kerry chose to announce that John Edwards would be his running mate. And it was in the rolling hills that surround this old steel town that the Kerry and Edwards families presented themselves to the nation and the world.

And the Bush-Cheney team is not to be outdone. Pennsylvania voters are being courted by the Republicans like the only girl at an all-boys high school. Scores of presidential and vice presidential visits to Pittsburgh alone make you wonder how they have time to visit any other towns and still run the country.

But being a frequent visitor is still a long way from spending weekends at your cabin just upstream from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. While the Republicans search for a way to strengthen their hand here, they may be considering a solution that solves more than just the Pennsylvania problem.

Cheney's future

As a Republican analyst said a while back, Dick Cheney can serve George Bush just as well from any number of administration positions. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- a lonely and cautious voice from the bush of the neo-con political wilderness -- could easily make room for Cheney in the State Department. Cheney has usurped much of that role already.

They must be aware that Republican success in Pennsylvania in recent years has depended on giving voters a clear philosophical choice. As their candidates have moved toward the center and have begun to sound more like Democrats, the Democrat voters around here are likely to stick with their own party.

So who does George Bush tap as his running mate• A want-ad would read something like this: "Candidate/Vice President of the United States -- Impeccable conservative credentials. Finely honed political instincts. Energetic and youthful. Possibility of advancement in four years. Pennsylvania residency required.

That sounds a lot like U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, doesn't it• And they could even make the announcement in Pittsburgh's Market Square.

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