The Senator from Scranton

Why Joe Biden's Pennsylvania roots mean more to Obama than his foreign policy cred.

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Missouri and Minnesota look good for Obama. Democrats won big Senate races in both places in 2006. Obama also won both of those states in the primary fight against Hillary Clinton. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has emerged as a problem for Obama, and he cannot win without it. Enter Sen. Biden.

Tonight, Biden will talk about his family and his long tenure in the U.S. Senate, but then he will go on and on about being born in Scranton and how Scranton still lives in him. We will hear how his wife, Jill, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and how her family still lives there.

Pennsylvania has been reliably Democratic for the last four presidential cycles, but each time only narrowly so. Relying on huge turnout in solidly Democratic Philadelphia County is a tenuous strategy, at best.

In 2000, Al Gore won Pennsylvania by just over 204,000 votes but carried Philadelphia County by 348,000 votes. Four years later, Kerry ran up an even bigger margin on Bush in Philly, winning by 412,000 votes. But his margin of victory in the state shrunk to just 144,000 votes.

Obama can ill-afford to lose any of those Kerry or Gore voters to John McCain. Dreamy talk of adding Virginia or Colorado to the Democratic column, or stealing another southern state like North Carolina, is predicated on the assumption that Pennsylvania is a win.

Certainly Biden brings experience and foreign policy expertise to the Obama ticket. And he adds gray hair and gravitas to boot. But what made him the subject of that middle-of-the night text message was not his grasp of the Balkans and Middle East, but what he knows about places like Lackawanna and Luzerne counties and the rest of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.