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Suburban Party-Switchers at the Polls

Debbie McCarter, right, Ward 1 democratic leader, sips on her coffee as folks walk by campaign signs across the street from the Glenside firehouse polling place in Cheltenham, Pa., just outside Philadelphia on Tuesday morning. (Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

By Krissah Williams
GLENSIDE, Pa. -- A big unknown in this election are the party switchers. That's the 164,000 people in Pennsylvania who have switched their voter registration from Republican or Independent to vote in the Democratic primary.

Nearly 20,000 of them are in the wealthy suburb of Montgomery County, which has become a fierce battleground for the Clinton and Obama camps. Once a Republican stronghold, Democrats became the majority of registered voters in the county two weeks ago.

So who are these newly minted Democrats?

Are they Republican women who've crossed over to support Clinton in her bid to become the first female president?

Are they moderate Republicans and independents wooed by Obama's unifier charm?

Are they Rush Limbaugh listeners following his advice to switch parties and vote for Clinton to prolong the pitched, ugly battle between the Democratic contenders?

Inquiring minds want to know.

So we asked a few while we're hunkered down at Precinct 1.2 in the cavernous Glenside fire station for the big (finally!) primary today.

Two Republicans-turned-Democrats in Glenside provided one picture.

Take Jackie Preston, a 54-year-old insurance agent. She's been a Republican all her life but this time she's backing Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"Bush soured me on the Republican party," she said. "I've decided that the Democrats do a much better job. I'm voting for the candidate who'll get it done."

When Preston hears Clinton talk about how Bush has led the country down the wrong path -- from the war in Iraq to the economic downturn -- she thinks she's spot on. Preston's confident that Clinton, with her experience and wonkish grasp of the political process, is the one to right the course.

"I don't think I'll ever be Republican again," she said.

Five minutes later, Kevin Merlini, 56, confessed to changing his alliances.

"I'm a Republican, but I'm voting for Obama in November," he said, presuming that Obama will win the Democratic nomination.

Merlini filled out his voter registration form weeks ago and changed his lifetime party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. But then he forgot to mail in the form before the deadline, so he was locked out of voting in the Democratic primary today. He took the green Republican ballot and voted for that party's presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Then, he talked about how much he admires Obama.

"I wish Barack Obama was a Republican," Merlini said before taking out a cigarette. "I think he's a very dynamic leader. Whether or not he ends the war or fixes the economy, I think he can make some changes in the country that are long overdue."

All this party switching has Pennsylvania's Republican faithful a little worried. The party sent out volunteers to some stations with Republican party signs and voter registration cards to invite the former Republicans to switch back right away. They'll also be calling former Republicans to "remind them why they were Republican in the first place," said Pennsylvania Republican Party spokesman Michael Barley.

"It's going to be difficult but we're going to get a lot of them back," he said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 22, 2008; 2:48 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , John McCain , Primaries  
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Next: High Turnout in Pennsylvania

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