Pennsylvania candidates for statewide office court young voters in State College

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Tom Corbett (left), GOP candidate for governor, shakes hands with Pat Toomey, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, at a Penn State rally.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - On a Penn State football weekend, State College likes to bill itself as the third-largest city in Pennsylvania.

For statewide political candidates, greeting tailgaters outside the 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium is a time-honored tradition on autumn Saturdays.

But even when the Nittany Lions are on the road, this bustling, affluent town of 38,000 permanent residents and 44,000 students offers a mother lode of potential votes in otherwise rural, mountainous Central Pennsylvania.

Which explains why Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, were both in town Wednesday - Corbett on campus and Onorato at two senior centers in and near State College. Onorato, who seeks to become the first Pennsylvania State University graduate elected governor, held a rally at the student union on Monday.

It also explains why Pat Toomey, the GOP's U.S. Senate candidate, was there with Corbett, and why Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak was on campus a few days earlier.

Dianne Gregg, former chairwoman of the Centre County Democratic Party, said it made sense for the candidates to focus on a student-age population near the end of an election season. Older voters might have made up their minds, she said, but students are just starting to focus.

"You've got to pick up votes in [Central Pennsylvania], and this is the most fertile ground to do that," she said.

For Republicans, it is must-win territory, to offset Democratic majorities in the cities.

For Democrats, it offers sparse hunting ground. But State College, at least, is rich in voters of both parties.

With the surge of student on-campus registration for Barack Obama in 2008, Democrats in Centre County surpassed Republicans in voter registration for the first time since 1980, Gregg said. According to the latest registration figures, there are 44,121 Democrats, 39,161 Republicans, and 14,353 independents.

The county is a true swing area. Obama won there in 2008, but George W. Bush took Centre County in 2004. Gov. Rendell, a Democrat, lost there in 2002, but won in 2006.

For Corbett, it was winning territory in both of his runs for state attorney general, in 2004 and 2008. Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, has never before sought statewide office.

Speaking at a rally organized by the College Republicans in the HUB-Robeson Center, Corbett said students should have a strong interest in the election because Democrats in Harrisburg have mortgaged their future by building up a huge state debt.

"This election is about your future," he said. "This is about the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow."

Onorato, on Monday, had stressed the connection between higher education and the economy, saying he wants to increase grants to college students and invest in university research.

"We want the next Microsoft to be here in Pennsylvania," he said.

Josh Crawford, chairman of the College Republicans, a junior criminal-justice major from Massachusetts, said student interest in the election seemed "way down" from 2008, when Obama had captured the imagination of many on campus.

He said about 2,000 students had registered or changed parties this fall to vote on campus.

Ashley Bowersox, 22, a senior from Selinsgrove who listened in on the Republican rally, said she already had voted by absentee ballot back home for Onorato and Sestak.

A psychology and anthropology major, she said she got to shake hands with Vice President Biden when he was at Penn State last month.

When she told her friends, she said, "I can't tell you how many said, 'Who is Joe Biden?' "

To be sure, students aren't the only potential voters with low interest in the election.

Franklin and Marshall College, which released a voter survey Wednesday showing Corbett with a 12-point lead among likely voters, said in a poll memo: "The large proportion of Pennsylvania registered adults who have not heard enough about the gubernatorial candidates to form an opinion of them continues to be unusually high for this point in the election cycle."

A newly released CNN poll showed Onorato down 7 points among likely voters, but leading among all registered voters. His campaign said that means turnout would be key.

Retiree David Peery, 81, who lives at the Hearthside Rehabilitation & Nursing Center, where Onorato met with residents Wednesday, said he didn't see a whole lot of election passion among town folks, either.

But older people almost always vote, he said. Young voters are fickle.

John Pelter, 21, a student from Somers, N.Y., said he was going to vote for Republicans across the board, mainly because of his conservative position on abortion.

"That's it for me," he said.

Both Onorato and Corbett personally oppose abortion. But Onorato says he would veto any change to Pennsylvania's current abortion law. Corbett has said that if a tougher law was permitted by the Supreme Court, he would sign it.

Casey Kelley, 20, a journalism major from St. Paul, Minn., who plans to vote Democratic on Tuesday in State College, said the issues in this year's election - deficits, debts - don't resonate with students.

"We're not homeowners, and we don't have kids," he said.

The debt that students are concerned about, she said, is the one they carry for their education.


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.