HARRISBURG - These are tough times for the state's Republican Party.

Republican voters are defecting by the thousands in Pennsylvania, all while the national media spotlight remains trained on the Democratic presidential candidates heading into the state's primary next month.

Rob Gleason, the state GOP chairman, acknowledges the difficulty of trying to rebuild the party, but sees a silver lining in the frequent rhetorical clashes between the would-be Democratic nominees, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

"The fact that they're beating each other up is good for us," he said, arguing that such conflict shores up the GOP base.

Recent voter registration trends have been far more encouraging for the Democrats, whose membership is all but certain to exceed 4 million - a level that neither party has attained before - by today's deadline for joining or changing parties.

Since last fall's election, the number of voters registered as Democrats has increased by more than 111,000 statewide - about 3 percent - while Republican enrollment shrank by more than 13,000, or 0.4 percent.

Since January, of the more than 68,000 registered voters who changed their party affiliation, those who enrolled as Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 3-1.

"I think it speaks volumes about where our party is headed," said T.J. Rooney, Gleason's Democratic counterpart.

Over the past two years, Democrats have racked up several key victories, unseating GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, re-electing Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and capturing a majority in the state House of Representatives in 2006 and winning both open state Supreme Court seats last year.

There are multiple explanations for the Democrats' registration gains, including intensive voter-recruitment efforts by the Obama and Clinton camps. Also important are voter disenchantment with the Bush administration and voters' desire - in a state whose primary is usually too late to affect presidential nominations - to participate in choosing either the first black or first female presidential nominee.

It is not easy to tell how many of the new Democrats came from the GOP, but recent random interviews with some of them suggested that the defectors have individual reasons for their decisions.

One is Ellen Weese, of Strafford, a longtime Republican who joined her husband in the Democratic Party this year. The couple have been working together as Obama campaign volunteers to register new voters in Delaware County.

"I was no longer feeling like a Republican," she said.

Peggy Conrad, a grandmother whose Upper Merion Township home straddles the Chester-Montgomery county line, also switched from Republican to Democrat.

"I feel strongly I want to vote Democratic this time," she said, adding that she likes both candidates, but intends to vote for Clinton.

"My gut is that maybe she has more experience dealing with Washington the way it is," she said.

Gleason said the GOP will work hard to persuade party-switchers to return to the fold and help elect Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. He said that will include telephone canvassing, mailings and even handing out voter-registration forms at some polls on primary day, April 22.

"We know everybody who switched," he said. "When this (primary) election is over, we're going after those people. We're going to get them back."

Rooney vowed to work just as hard to retain Democrats, noting that the state party recently overhauled its Web site to encourage dialogue between party leaders and rank-and-file members.

"The party needs to talk to voters all the time," not just in election years, he said. *