Perched on the observation balcony at the end of the Georgian Railroad train, Barack Obama waves at passing Pennsylvanian voters and shouts: “The train is leaving the station – I need your help.”
By Edward Luce in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Then he pulls the whistle and returns to his upholstered caboose.
Mr Obama’s latest campaign gimmick – the whistle-stop train journey, evoking memories of mid-20th century presidential campaigns – certainly attracted attention. At the four rally stops on the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line, thousands turned out to hear Mr Obama deliver some of his most pointed attacks so far on Hillary Clinton.
Claiming that she had thrown the “kitchen sink” at him and practised “a slash-and-burn, say-anything, do-anything, special-interest-driven politics”, Mr Obama veered close to describing Mrs Clinton as a Republican.
Mr Obama’s final weekend of campaigning before Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary followed the toughest few weeks of the 15-month campaign, in which gaffes about the bitterness of small-town Americans and inflammatory revelations about Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, put him consistently on the defensive.
“Hillary Clinton says, ‘Look this is what the Republicans are going to do to you’,” he said. “But I am not interested in mimicking what the Republicans did to the Clintons over the last two decades . . . Senator Clinton has internalised a lot of the strategies and the tactics that have made Washington such a miserable place.”
Passing through plush suburbs and rural farming communities, including the home of the Amish in Lancaster County, Mr Obama’s “On Track for Change” tour followed his largest ever rally in Philadelphia at the weekend.
Thirty five thousand people turned out – 5,000 more than at the joint rally earlier this year with Oprah Winfrey, the celebrity television personality – to hear him speak in front of Independence Hall, where the US’s founding fathers declared their break from Britain.
But the latest opinion polls suggest that the crowds might not compensate for Mrs Clinton’s strong lead among Pennsylvania’s blue-collar white voters, who predominate outside the state’s large cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Obama officials say they hope to confine Mrs Clinton’s widely forecast victory in Tuesday’s primary to a single-digit margin. That, they say, would blunt any momentum for her heading into the next two primaries in North Carolina and Indiana on May 6.
It would also ensure that Mr Obama maintained a clear lead both in the overall popular vote and in the elected delegate count, where he has a virtually insurmountable edge of about 150. After May 6 there are seven more contests leading up to the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana on June 3, both of which he is expected to win.
“I have been campaigning for 15 months,” Mr Obama tells a packed crowd at the Wynnewood train station 20 miles out of Philadelphia. “Babies who weren’t even born before I started are now walking and talking.”
At a “house-to-house” canvassing session in a mostly white, working-class area of Philadelphia, residents greeted Mr Obama with a mixture of enthusiasm and indifference.
The accompanying media outnumbered the local residents, many of them sitting on their lawns in the sunshine. “This reminds me of my days campaigning to be a state senator in Illinois,” Mr Obama said. “Only there was no media and there were more slammed doors.”
At each house Mr Obama asked the residents whether they had any questions. Most looked stumped. Those who did respond focused on economic basics, such as the cost of healthcare, mortgage payments or local business taxes. There was little of the idealism evident among the overwhelmingly younger and well-heeled crowds that turn out in their thousands to hear Mr Obama speak.
“Any questions?” Mr Obama asked one Clinton supporter, a truck driver who had taken two minutes to answer his door. “None that I can think of,” he replied. “Would you like to take a picture with me?” Mr Obama asked. The truck driver obliged. “Say cheese,” suggested Mr Obama. They both smiled awkwardly.