LANSDALE, PA -- About 30 people gathered at the West Main Diner on Wednesday afternoon to meet Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic contender for the state's Senate seat. He emerged out into the drizzle on foot, in his signature leather bomber jacket, trailed by an aide. There are six days until the election, and Sestak is behind by a few points (according to outside polls) or in a dead heat (according to his campaign's internal polls). He has come to the suburbs of Philadelphia to take advantage of a late Democratic surge and lock in one of the most important voting blocs in his state.
The residential communities of southeast Pennsylvania were for decades home to reliable, if moderate, Republican voters, but demographic shifts toward white-collar workers and minorities since 1988 as well as changes in the Republican Party have given Democrats an advantage. A concentrated effort among Democrats shifted the local rolls from a 20,000-voter Republican advantage in 2003 to a 13,000 Democratic advantage in 2008, Doylestown lawyer and Democratic activist Jordan Yeager told me.
"Bush was a great motivator for those people to shift," Yeager says. "This cycle is about what extent are they going to go back."
Chris Matthews, the television host and former congressional aide who almost jumped into this race, doesn't think the Democrats can hang on to the gains they've made among these voters.
"If you look at the swing states they picked up in 2006-2008, you can see the places, in the suburbs ... where Republicans usually have the edge," he told his viewers Monday. "[Democrats] won those seats when people wanted to see a shift from Bush to Obama. Those seats would have reverted back to their usual partisan moorings even in normal times, and 10 percent unemployment and holding is not a normal time."
Sestak, however, doesn't have the luxury of time. He's got to change the dynamics of this race, and in the last few weeks, a tightening in the numbers suggests to Pennsylvania political observers that Democratic voters are rallying after a summer of apathy.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey has campaigned steadily as a free-market, anti-Obama Republican, comfortably riding the national wave and promising that lower taxes and spending will bring more jobs. Sestak is finishing out the race by emphasizing a combination of economic populism, the values he learned during his 30-year military career, and his perceived independence, stemming from his primary challenge to former Sen. Arlen Specter, who gained the support of the Democratic establishment after switching parties.
All of that may not be enough, though, without the enthusiasm of the coalition of young and minority voters who turned out to support Obama in 2008. "Don't wring your hands about it," he implored the crowd at West Main. "You know where we are. We have to bring this home."
Some think Sestak waited too long to highlight the extreme conservatism of his opponent, whose post-congressional career was heading the Club for Growth, which supports conservative candidates seeking to defeat moderate Republicans in primary elections. Now a Democratically funded Pennsylvania radio ad compares Toomey to Gordon Gekko of the movie Wall Street.
"He is not a witch, but this book is scary," Sestak tells the crowd in the diner, holding up Toomey's book, The Road to Prosperity, a collection of free-market policy proposals that lauds as "creative destruction" the dislocations faced by many American workers, and champions cheap imports from China. The book is not well received by the crowd, a group of former union workers whose factory, which supplied auto parts to Ford, closed after its contracts were gradually offshored. Lansdale lost 2,600 jobs.
"If you get laid off at 50, you'll never get another job," one man, whose angered face matched his red shirt, tells Sestak. "You'll be drinking Red Bull, stocking shelves of a Target at midnight!"
The anger is very real, and it's aimed at Wall Street, where Toomey worked as an analyst, and at corporate America. "This is not something that began in the last two years. I've seen this for the last 10 years," says Rick Jacobs, the president of the employees' union at the erstwhile factory.
Sestak articulates that anger effectively on the stump, despite the exhaustion that comes with the final days of campaigning. Sestak had slept for about two and half hours the night before I saw him, arriving home at 2 a.m. and hitting the campaign trail at 4:30. His cheek was rubbed raw from his nervous habit of tugging his earlobe. At a later rally in Philadelphia, he tried to play up his connection to President Obama, whom he would join that evening on a get-out-the-vote conference call with Pennsylvania activists. But he forgot to mention the president's name until the final sentence of his speech.
The former vice admiral is on message about one thing, though, and that's comparing his legislative and military service. Whether talking bank bailouts ("I was a damage-control officer in Vietnam"), the budget ("It takes some choices, but that's what you're paid for in the military as well"), or the need for more competition in the markets ("That's what I had in the military, invest in our people, and hold them accountable"), he hits the theme. While Sestak's liberal positions -- he isn't shy about defending health-care reform -- might be a liability in this cycle, his military bona fides seem to insulate him. Waiting to be introduced, arms on his hips, squinting, he looks like he might still be on the bridge of the carrier he once commanded.
After a small rally in South Philly with City Council President Ann Verna -- his campaigning with the urban, mostly black crowd the same day as with the older, white would-be retirees emphasized the breadth of his potential electoral coalition -- I asked what message voters would send if he pulled out the win.
"That Pennsylvania has made a commonsensical decision," he answered immediately. "That's the choice."
This hasn't been an election season noted for the sober analysis of the American voter. Then again, "Common Sense" was written by an original Tea Partier in Philadelphia, so maybe anything can happen.