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The Obama/Clinton Twins

By Robert Novak

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Taking his last question at a "town meeting" here on Saturday, Barack Obama encountered an issue he neither expected nor welcomed: abortion. The eloquent senator from Illinois, who normally extends his answers with multiple digressions, made short work of a passionate pro-life woman asking about a "moral crisis" caused by abortion. After quickly explaining why "I am pro-choice," he adjourned the event at Greater Johnstown High School.

That brief encounter marked a rare departure from script last week as I followed the two contestants for the Democratic presidential nomination as they campaigned for two late primaries in states where, respectively, each is behind by double-digit margins in the polls -- Obama in Pennsylvania, whose primary is April 22; Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, which will vote May 6. Each stuck to conventional liberal boilerplate, their language so similar that these two fierce adversaries could be called the Democratic twins.

They both backed away from the bitter conflicts that have marked their struggle. Neither mentioned serious problems that could yet cause them grave damage: racism by Obama's spiritual adviser and Clinton's made-up story of sniper fire in Bosnia. The tame questions by invited guests at what the candidates claimed were town meetings avoided the controversial or even the interesting.

But, somehow, the antiabortion woman got into the high school gym here, and Obama chanced to pick her to ask the last question he would take. While he likes to stretch out his answers to embrace as many talking points as possible, he went into warp speed on abortion, using the conventional pro-choice politician's mantra. "Nobody is pro-abortion," he said, contending that abortion should be a woman's choice after due consultation (though, improbably, he listed "her priest" as one of her consultants).

Abortion is the last thing Obama wants to be talking about in Pennsylvania, where many Democrats are pro-life. He would love to score an upset win in the state that would clinch the nomination, but the odds are long. With Gov. Ed Rendell's political organization backing Clinton, Obama was starting from scratch Friday when he launched a six-day Pennsylvania bus tour. Obama did get an unexpected endorsement that day from a major state figure: Sen. Bob Casey, who is Rendell's blood enemy. (The pro-life Casey was at Obama's side Saturday when he made his pro-choice declaration.)

Johnstown typifies problems Obama faces in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Murtha, whose steady flow of federal pork into the city has made him a hero here, strongly supports Clinton. So do most of the other local Democratic worthies, who showed up at the opening of a Clinton headquarters a few hours before the Obama event. The population of Johnstown is around 3 percent black, though probably one in six at the town meeting was African American. The only local speaker was Victoria King, a black volunteer.

The number of blacks at Obama's Johnstown gathering actually exceeded the number who attended Clinton's events last week in North Carolina, where half of the state's 2.5 million registered Democrats are African American. For Clinton's first visit to the state as a presidential candidate, the endorsers appearing at her events were at the county-commissioner level.

In backing away from attacks, Clinton did not even recognize her opponent's existence (though her aides were administering the usual battering of Obama in a media conference call while she was taking the high road Thursday). Talking to reporters after the Johnstown event, Obama said it was advisable for both candidates "to show some restraint" and added that he was "not blameless."

However, while answering a voter's question Saturday, Obama could not resist saying that "the Clintons pushed NAFTA," which both candidates have assailed.

That was hardly the red meat supporters of each candidate desired when they entered stuffy high school gyms and sat for long hours waiting for their candidate. Instead, they endured wonkish declarations, nearly identical from Obama and Clinton, on corporate tax policy, college tuition, alternative energy and other items on the liberal laundry list. Obama thinks he has the nomination won, and Clinton is not desperate enough to launch a suicidal last attack.

(c) 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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