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Obama rides into Clinton's heartland

Just days before a potentially decisive contest for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were engaged in a bruising bare-knuckle fight which can only benefit their Republican opponent, John McCain.

The Pennsylvania countryside passed in a blur for Mrs Clinton as she dashed around by car, plane and bus, trying to shore up her eroding lead in the polls. She asked voters to look beyond the "whoop-dee-do" speeches of her opponent as they vote tomorrow. And while Bill Clinton told people they would never have a better "changemaker," their daughter Chelsea worked the phones, trying to stop a haemorrhaging of party officials, known as superdelegates, to the Obama camp.

Mr Obama appeared more confident as he travelled by slow train deep into Mr Clinton's small-town heartland, the sort of places where he said people were "bitter" and where they "cling" to guns and religion in the face of economic adversity.

Despite his ill-chosen remarks, Mr Obama was enthusiastically received. With jacket off and sleeves rolled up, he waved to well-wishers from the back of a royal blue caboose. Crowds of all ages and races gathered in the sun-dappled afternoon.

The day's journey began in Philadelphia where, to the tunes of his latest celebrity supporter, Bruce Springsteen, an estimated 35,000 people gathered to hear Mr Obama speak. Such numbers are unheard of at primary season rallies. Despite setbacks on the campaign trail, Mr Obama's organisation has quietly registered voters, especially students, drawn to his message of change.

The candidates have been racing from one end of the country to the other for over a year, gathering support and raising money. But this was the first tour in a train, and even the conductor got into the spirit, telling Mr Obama that he could sound the train's whistle.

With a pull on the cord, he was headed for the state capital, Harrisburg, stopping along the way to make speeches. Where possible, the train slowed as the candidate waved to supporters. Relaxed as the journey was for Mr Obama, it was a nightmare for his secret service detail. They shadowed the train in a fleet of 4x4s and placed spotters with binoculars on tall buildings along the way.

At Lancaster train station, a group of Amish farmers and their families, who use horses and buggies to get around, listened impassively to Mr Obama. He accused Mrs Clinton of being in the grip of big business and playing Republican-style dirty politics. The Clinton campaign has adopted a "kitchen sink" strategy of throwing everything that comes to hand at Mr Obama, justifying it by saying that it is what the Republicans would do to him.

But rather than throw mud back, Mr Obama tried to persuade his listeners that he could offer a different leadership style. "I'm not interested in mimicking what the Republicans did to the Clintons over the past 20 years," he said in the glow of a setting sun. "I don't want to become them."

That was enough to persuade Dan Allgyer, a buggy maker and horse breeder. "He's got all the arguments and I believe he's authentic," he said. "The question is, can he get the people around him to make it happen?"

As he pulled the train's whistle before departing for the next stop, Mr Obama did not have the look of a man facing defeat, although the polls predict that Mrs Clinton will win Pennsylvania by up to 5 percentage points.


From Belfast Telegraph