Soured on Obama, voters motivated by economic frustrations

"They say it's getting better, but I don't see it," said her husband, Mark Henning, 31, as they left the job training centre, which provides resume-writing help, technological training and other courses.

Both are unemployed and receiving government assistance to put food on the table.
Scranton, a city of 72,000 people in north-eastern Pennsylvania, has been hit hard by the economic crisis even as much of the city's downtown remains vibrant. The local economy is shifting from manufacturing and mining to healthcare and education.

The broader region has the highest unemployment rate in the state. And that's bad news for Democrats seeking to win office in and around Scranton, which with its union base and working class population has a long history of supporting the centre-left party.
Voters in Scranton - and across much of the nation - are fed up with Washington and the seeming inability of politicians to do much to escape the economic doldrums, even as the positive data seem to come in slowly.

Republicans hope they can tap into that mood nationally in congressional and local elections Nov 2. They are seeking to capture majorities in Congress, which would thwart much of President Barack Obama's agenda and is widely seen as a referendum on the first two years of his presidency.

The jobless rate in the Scranton region stands at 10.2 percent compared to 9.6 percent nationwide, and some 400 jobs were lost here in August as a local manufacturer laid off workers and financial and government jobs were also lost.

In particular, discontent with the economy along with a general disdain for the political establishment could spell trouble for Paul Kanjorski, the Democratic congressman who has represented much of the region for 25 years.

Polls show Republican challenger Lou Barletta, mayor of nearby Hazleton, with a slight lead, even as the district went for Obama by the second-largest margin in the state in 2008.

The race is seen as a bellwether in a state that is closely watched in national elections and has drawn high-profile Democrats, including former president Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, to stump for candidates.

Scranton, known as the setting of the US version of hit television show "The Office", is Biden's hometown and is often portrayed in political circles as representative of the American working class.

Scranton is the "quintessential working town", local David Weber, 53, said recently as he bought apples from a farm stand in front of the courthouse. "We're all working class around here."

Like many voters in the area, he supported Obama and would "vote for him three times if I could" but still feels he hasn't seen many results with jobs, as his own work as a printer is set to move overseas.

"I have always worked with my hands. When I was younger there were always jobs to have," he said.

But efforts to retrain workers for the high-tech and green energy jobs touted as the future by politicians leave him cold."Not everyone can be a computer tech," he said. "We need forklift drivers - something for 'Joe Six-Pack' to do."

Betty Anthony, 60, who hasn't worked for a number of years because of a disability, simply thinks Kanjorski has been in office too long, but is not sure about his Republican opponent, either. Anthony was attending a fair in the neighbouring town of Wilkes-Barre with her husband, Jim, who works at a factory that makes wire rope. She once worked in the local garment industry, but those jobs have "gone to China."

Like many in the district, she voted for Obama but is now unsure about him. "It seems like nothing ever really gets done," she said.

Even some members of the local Democratic establishment are deserting the party in this election, with a number throwing their support behind Republican Barletta.

"Kanjorski is no longer the voice of the working man in northeastern Pennsylvania," Brian Kelly, who ran against Kanjorski in the party primary, said in endorsing the Republican.
The Democrat's supporters however point to his long record of service and seniority in Congress, noting Barletta won't have much pull if he is elected to a first term. Many diehard Democrats here also say the party's policies have simply not had enough time to take effect and Republicans would not be able to solve the country's problems either.
"I think they're trying, but (the economy) was so in the tank when Obama got it that it's taking more time than he was expecting," noted Mark Henning outside Scranton's job training centre.

The candidates have faced off twice before, but this election will be different with the national mood in the Republicans' favour, Barletta spokesman Shawn Kelly said.
"In '08 people were excited about hope and change," he said, "but what they got is not what they thought they'd get."

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