A Debate on Jobs in Pennsylvania. Not

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Richard Perry / New York Times / Redux

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton tours a sheet metal shop in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

As she makes her way around this former Rust Belt state, Hillary Clinton is adamant that manufacturing jobs must return to America. "I really am one of those who believes passionately that you can't be and won't be a strong economy if you don't make things," the New York Senator told reporters in Philadelphia on Tuesday. "So, absolutely, I believe we can once again be a manufacturing economy."

Her rival, Barack Obama, is much more dubious: "Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we know that some of the changes in our economy can't be reversed," Obama hours later told a crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. "The swift and strong currents of globalization can't be stopped."

Pennsylvania has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since George W. Bush took office, and as Obama and Clinton vie for votes ahead of the April 22 primary, the question of how they will create new jobs, or bring back old ones, comes up at nearly every event. On the surface the two candidates appear to be offering very different remedies, but their actual plans are virtually identical: both candidates bank on adding millions of new jobs with the help of emerging green and renewable industries coupled with large investments in infrastructure. It's in the 10-second sound bites where the messages diverge — and what people remember.

Polls in this union-heavy state show Clinton has been, so far, winning that message war, but Obama — who has spent the last six days traversing the state — is rapidly catching up. She leads Obama by 6 percentage points, down from 17 points earlier this week, according to an average of Pennsylvania polls by Real Clear Politics, a non-partisan website that tracks the election. Yet the latest Survey USA poll shows Clinton leading Obama 71% to 23% in the state's union-dense northeastern Rust Belt — the only region where she gained ground in that poll.

At the most basic level, Obama is telling Pennyslvanians what they don't want to hear, while Clinton tells them exactly what they want to hear. (In many ways their conflicting messages mirror John McCain and Mitt Romney's blue-collar jobs debate in the run-up to the Michigan primary earlier this year.) Then, in the next breath, the hedging starts. Obama informs his audiences that some jobs can certainly be brought back, while Clinton cautions that, of course, not all jobs can be recreated. From that point on, their riffs run parallel. The two support cutting subsidies to companies that outsource jobs abroad and creating rewards for those that keep production here. Both candidates would invest $150 billion over 10 years in new green technologies such as solar and wind power, which both campaigns say will create five million new jobs over the next decade. The only distinction is that Clinton deems them "manufacturing" jobs, while Obama considers them part of the new economy.

Clinton announced this week a $78.5 billion plan to shore up the nation's infrastructure, including a $10 billion emergency fund for high-risk bridges and other structures and a $60 billion National Infrastructure Bank that would finance large projects — all of which, she claims, would create three million jobs. Similarly, in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse last summer, Obama announced a plan to spend $60 billion on fixing bridges, dams and highways, a move that he says would create two million jobs.

The candidates' platforms are so alike, in fact, that they both point to the same example — a plant in Fairless Hills outside Philadelphia that revamped its business to make wind turbines after its steel operations shut down. Clinton held a rally there with 2,500 supporters Monday night, her voice echoing off of the building's massive corrugated frame. "A lot of big facilities like U.S. Steel and others have shut down or dramatically cut back, and we've lost a lot of jobs," Clinton told the crowd. "And so what we see here is a perfect example of the people of Bucks County, of Pennsylvania, rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, because in life lots of times you can't control what happens to you."

The next day, addressing a gathering of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Obama cited the same facility as the first of the next generation of American ingenuity. "We're going to transform shuttered steel mills to make windmills, plants that have closed will make solar panels," he said. "These kinds of jobs are bringing new life back to places that have been hard hit in recent decades — places like Fairless Hills in Bucks County, where the old U.S. Steel plant is now being used to make wind turbines."

Up to now, Obama's straight-talk approach has not played as well with crucial white union voters as Clinton's hopeful populist pronouncements, which helped her win neighboring Ohio by more than 10 points. As McCain discovered in Michigan, not too many workers want to hear there's little hope of getting their old jobs back. "If there aren't major policy differences, it's about perceptions, it's about who is feels your pain," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Stanford Washington Research Group, which tracks economic policy issues. "Hillary is slightly better; she appeals to beer drinkers, Obama appeals to chardonnay drinkers." And so far, at least, her prescription for job growth has proven much easier to swallow.