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Obama's charm offensive in PA

From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
STATE COLLEGE, PA -- Obama has launched a charm offensive in Pennsylvania, forgoing days packed with town halls and cheering crowds at rallies to make small unannounced stops that take the locals by surprise.

Case in point, trying not to strike out in Pennsylvania to Clinton, Obama went bowling Saturday night at Pleasant Valley Lanes in Altoona, five minutes from a hot dog shop that he had visited earlier in the day.

When Obama walked in with Sen. Bob Casey, who recently endorsed him, locals stopped munching mid-fry to stare. The presidential hopeful shook hands, posed for pictures and then joined local Roxanne Hart to bowl a few frames.

"I haven't bowled in 30 years," Obama declared before putting on size 13 1/2 shoes. Casey joined in, and the two rolled. Casey's ball went into the left gutter; Obama's rolled into the right. And so it went, though the locals didn't seem to mind the poor performance. Little kids offered advice and joined in the game. Casey managed to improved steadily, though the last time he bowled was in high school. Obama's balls on the on the other hand meandered their way into the gutter time and time again.

"My economic plan is better than my bowling!" Obama declared at one point to the crowd that had gathered around the lane, growing with each frame as patrons texted and called friends and family to see the political spectacle.

Eventually, in the seventh frame, Obama made a spare, cleaning up one pin left standing with his second ball. He started chanting, "Yes I can!" and a few in the crowd joined in. He quit while he was ahead, signing two bowling pins for the owners before leaving.

The stop was one part of a new offensive by the candidate to find a way to connect with voters outside of events that appear filled to the brim with his own supporters.

At Altoona's Original Texas Dog restaurant yesterday, the campaign planned a round table with three women at the local stop. Munching on hot dogs while talking health care is much more "man of the people" than shouting, "I love you back," to adoring, screaming crowds.

Obama's deficit in Pennsylvania polls may cause some to raise eyebrows at the new tactic, but at a press conference yesterday Obama said that the length of time offered by Pennsylvania's April 22 primary allowed him to campaign at a more "leisurely pace." The rallies and town halls would come, he promised.

At that same press conference, Obama was asked how he would appeal to voters in Western Pennsylvania when he "bombed" with voters in Eastern Ohio, a similar demographic group that he tried to reach out. Obama simply said that he hadn't been in Ohio enough to win them over.

But the events he had in Ohio were serious affairs, focused on four to five town halls, roundtables, and tours of plant factories per day -- designed to make the candidate appear serious and focused on the economy. It was your standard campaign fare, and it didn't help him in the state.

But it's questionable if voters will remember Obama talking about the economy -- or him feeding a baby calf from a bottle like he did at Penn State this morning when they open their local paper or turn on their evening newscasts.

The new efforts, Obama and his aides have said, are focused on trying to get voters to know Obama better. The Clintons, they like to say, are well known here and their support runs deep. Despite the small stops, Obama has said that his message will stay the same, and there's a definitely an economically themed component to most of his stump speeches.

But one has to wonder, as Obama left  a Sharky's Café, a sports bar in Latrobe, talking about Yuengling with a local, if the goal isn't so much to introduce Obama to voters as it is to introduce a different image of him.

"You know I got a beer down there. What do they cal it.. a Yuengling?" Obama said to a local man.

"Yuengling! Like you didn't know," the guy joked back.

"Trying a Pennsylvania beer, that's what I'm talking about. Is it expensive though?" Obama asked. "Wanna make sure it's not some designer beer or something."
 
He shook a few hands and took a few more sips of beer before he walked out, the headline writing itself: "The Candidate You Can Drink a Beer With..."