Future of `New' Democrats Tested in Pennsylvania Race Fickle Suburban Voters, Now the Largest and Most Powerful Voting Bloc in the Country, Are Being Courted by Both Parties in a Bellwether Election for US Senate

Article excerpt

THE owners of the lush lawns and cookie-cutter single-family homes sprouting all over suburban Philadelphia hold the fate of United States Sen. Harris Wofford in their hands.

In an upset, Democrat Wofford won these predominantly Republican suburbs in a 1991 special election by preaching change and health-care reform. In 1992 - the first year in US history that suburban voters made up a majority of the electorate - Bill Clinton carried these and other suburbs across the country with a similar message.

But residents and observers say Mr. Wofford this year, and Mr. Clinton in 1996, must find a new message that appeals to middle-class suburban voters, now the largest and most powerful voting bloc in the country.

"I think a lot of the bluster has been taken out of the health-care debate," says Andy, a young businessman who just moved with his wife from downtown Philadelphia to the affluent suburbs of Delaware County. "It could {hurt Wofford}."

The stakes are enormous. Republican and Democratic attempts to adapt to shifting suburban ideas of what government's role should be, if any, in society will be the dominant political dynamic in the US for the next several decades, analysts say.

If one party can solidify its hold on the suburbs, it could hold majorities in state houses and Congress for years to come.

In Pennsylvania, a 500,000-person drop in Philadelphia's population since World War II has steadily reduced the power of its once formidable Democratic Party machine. The four affluent and predominantly Republican counties that ring the city are some of the state's fastest-growing areas.

They now represent one of the largest voting blocks in Pennsylvania. A similar pattern is occurring around Pittsburgh and many other cities in the US.

"{Suburban voters are} going to be an even larger majority this year," says Walter Dean Burnham, a professor of politics and government at the University of Texas who has studied suburban voting in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston. "You can't win if you're a Democrat in Pennsylvania and you don't do well in the suburbs. That's a long-term demographic trend." Seeking a message

Wofford, who in the latest poll trails Republican challenger Rick Santorum by 11 percentage points, has been struggling to find a message in a race pundits expected him to win easily.

Mr. Santorum, a two-term conservative congressman from the Pittsburgh area, is portraying Wofford, a former college president, as an ineffective, out-of-touch idealist trapped in a 1960s-era big-government-can-solve-everything mentality. "{Health-care reform} will be resurrected next year and we will take action on it," Santorum told a Jewish community group while campaigning recently in Philadelphia. …


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