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Voters' enthusiasm tilting toward Obama in Penn.

Associated Press | 2/19/2009, 5:45 a.m.

STROUDSBURG, Penn. — For Edwin David, who served with the famed World War II unit of black fighters known as the Tuskegee Airmen, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is an easy choice.

“Just let me live till voting time in November,” said David, 83, living in retirement in the Pocono Mountains. “In my lifetime, we just might get to see the first African American president of the United States!”

Fresh from victories in the big states of Ohio and Texas, and with polls having shown her holding the lead here, even if it has dwindled, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York starts her campaign in Pennsylvania as the favorite to win the April 22 primary. Clinton is also hoping to make history — the U.S. has never had a woman president.

But in random interviews conducted earlier this month with dozens of voters in swing districts across the state, much of the Democratic voter enthusiasm seemed to tilt toward Obama, not only because he is a fresh face, but because they believe he has the best shot at beating Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, whom they call old and out-of-touch.

But unlike David, many said it wasn’t an easy decision.

Kate Clark, 53, a cafe owner in Nazareth, a small town near Allentown, said she struggled with her choice. Tempted to vote for Clinton because of her gender, she said Obama’s energy and vision ultimately won out.

“I think we need to see the United States and see the world through eyes that are younger, through eyes that have dreams, through eyes that see something new for the nation,” Clark said.

Clark said she worries about the health of the environment — and the economy. Fewer people are walking through the doors of her quaint eatery now than at any time since it opened 11 years ago.

“People are afraid. The five dollars that they have is being spent on gas, on food,” she said. “Everyone’s tight with cash.”

On the other hand, Clinton supporter Carol Velez, 52, of Norristown, in the Philadelphia suburbs, calls Obama “a glorified preacher.”

“His words are not his actions,” said Velez, who works in sales. “His plan is not a reality. It’s just what people want to hear.”

Clinton, she said, “is totally qualified and experienced.”

Republicans still hold the edge in voter registration in the Philadelphia suburbs, but steady Democratic gains and voters’ willingness to cross party lines in that largely white-collar region have made it crucial to Democrats. The city itself contains the state’s largest concentration of Democratic voters, and its large black population is expected to give Obama an advantage there.

Clinton is expected to run stronger in northeastern Pennsylvania, with its mix of blue-collar, culturally conservative voters around Scranton and the growing number of New York commuters who are moving in the Pocono Mountains region; and the Pittsburgh region in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In Nazareth, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, grocery store manager Terry LaBar said he’s undecided between Clinton and Obama. He wants to see them in the flesh before making up his mind.

“I think it’s time that maybe a woman gets in there and expresses her views and has a chance,” said LaBar, who is married with two teenage children. On the other hand, he said, Obama represents a break with the past. “I’m always looking for new things to happen.”

Another undecided Democrat is Tom Ciesielski, 43, who owns a pet food store in the Pittsburgh suburb of McCandless.

He might vote for Clinton because a win would put her husband, the former president, back in the White House too: “I like Bill Clinton. Life was good with Clinton.”

But Obama, Ciesielski said, would be a uniter: “Obama seems like he would bring the world back together. We travel a lot and, man, everyone hates us because of the [Iraq] war.”

Only Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary. The campaigns have until March 24 to sign up new party members from the 984,000 registered voters who are not members of either major party, or from potential defectors among the 3.2 million Republicans or Pennsylvanians who are not registered to vote.

Among black Democrats, there is an undeniable sense of pride that Obama could be the first black president.

Single mother Kenya Howard, 32, lists health care as her biggest day-to-day concern. Unemployed and uninsured, she avoids going to the doctor because it costs $50 for a visit. She likes Obama’s health plan, but that is not the primary reason why she is supporting him.

“A good portion of it is because he’s black,” said Howard, of Allentown. “I think a lot of black people would say that.”

Associated Press writers Ramesh Santanam in Pittsburgh and Patrick Walters in Norristown, Penn., contributed to this story.

(Associated Press)