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Tom Owens and his daughter Alyssa at Hank's Hoagies in Scranton, PA, near Vice-President Joe Biden'a childhood home. (Joanna Slater/The Globe and Mail)

Tom Owens and his daughter Alyssa at Hank's Hoagies in Scranton, PA, near Vice-President Joe Biden'a childhood home.

(Joanna Slater/The Globe and Mail)

In Joe Biden's hometown, waiting for Hillary Clinton Add to ...

The race to become the next president of the United States has barely begun, but for Evie Rafalko-McNulty it’s already threatening to cleave her family in two.

Ms. Rafalko-McNulty is a county government official in Scranton, a once-thriving coal-mining town in the green mountains of northern Pennsylvania. It’s a place that’s famous mostly as the fictional setting of the television show The Office, or simply as a kind of shorthand for the struggles of ordinary Americans.

Yet only this gritty city of 76,000 people can claim two presidential hopefuls as its own. Vice-President Joe Biden was born in Scranton and trumpets his roots here so often that it became the stuff of parody (“I grew up there, I love it, it’s the single worst place on Earth,” said a Biden impersonator on Saturday Night Live during the 2012 campaign).

Hillary Clinton is also embraced as a local. Scranton is the place where she was baptized, where she spent her childhood summers and where two generations of her family worked in a local lace factory. Her two brothers still own a lakeside cabin nearby.

“It’s like, aw, man, who’s your favourite – your brother or your sister?” said Ms. Rafalko-McNulty, 54. Mr. Biden is a friend of her husband’s, while she is a diehard supporter of Ms. Clinton. Any contest between them “would put my marriage in an awkward spot.”

Neither Ms. Clinton nor Mr. Biden has announced whether they will run for president in 2016. Ms. Clinton, already the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, is releasing a book this month about her time as U.S. Secretary of State, which some pundits see as a prelude to a campaign. If she runs, some political observers believe Mr. Biden may abstain from mounting a bid of his own.

Scranton, meanwhile, is caught between its loyalty to a native son and its fondness for an adopted daughter. A heavily Democratic city, its allegiances offer a lens into the broader choice facing the party as it seeks a new standard-bearer: Will it be Ms. Clinton, the leading contender; Mr. Biden, the heir-in-waiting; or a less mainstream choice?

Recent Pennsylvania-wide polls show Ms. Clinton with a formidable, if premature, lead. In a February survey conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, 58 per cent of registered Democrats in the state said they would support her in a primary contest, while just 6 per cent would support Mr. Biden. Ms. Clinton would also beat the current crop of Republican challengers in the broader battle for Pennsylvania, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University.

In Scranton, politics are serious business. Every U.S. president – Democrat or Republican – going back to Jimmy Carter has made campaign stops here. It has produced an unusual number of top elected officials in Pennsylvania. “The residents of Scranton have an extra gene for politics,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall, only half in jest. The region’s economic troubles and its blue-collar, socially conservative electorate also make it a symbol of a larger segment of American voters.

In a neighbourhood of modest old houses and crumbling sidewalks sits the small brick church where Ms. Clinton was baptized after her birth in Chicago. In the 1990s, she returned to the same church for her father’s funeral and her niece’s christening. Across the road is a store run by Lisa Archer and her husband, Robert Angelo, which offers dog-grooming services and also sells exotic fish.

Ms. Archer thinks the prospect of Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is inspiring. She wouldn’t feel any qualms about supporting her over Mr. Biden. It was “as much of a big deal when she came here as when he did – if not more,” said Ms. Archer, 48. She’s more worried, though, about whether any president can improve life for average Americans. “We can all vote for Hillary, but can things be changed?”

Back in the late 1800s, Scranton was the first place in the United States to have an electric streetcar system, earning it the nickname “Electric City.” It entered into decades of decline with the closing of coal mines and later, the departure of manufacturing businesses. Today it has the highest unemployment of any metropolitan area in Pennsylvania, currently 7.3 per cent. Yet despite precarious city finances and problems with corruption, Scranton is doing better than in the recent past.

Steve Corbett, a local talk-radio host, said Ms. Clinton demonstrates some distinctly Scranton-esque traits. “No matter what they’ve thrown at her, that’s a woman who continues to move forward,” said Mr. Corbett, 62. Meanwhile, she has shown a “real affinity and a real loyalty to people in this community.”

In that category, Ms. Clinton, 66, has competition. Mr. Biden, 71, was in Scranton earlier this spring for St. Patrick’s Day. Last August, he travelled to a local college with President Barack Obama. He never hesitates to celebrate his early years in Scranton, which he left at age 10 when his family moved to Delaware. “My name is Joe Biden and as strange as it sounds, everything important in my life that I’ve learned [was] here in Scranton,” he told a hometown crowd in 2012.

Mr. Biden has many fans in the city. One of them is Anne Kearns, 79, who has lived in the Biden family’s former white clapboard house for five decades. Mr. Biden is a “very warm, down-to-earth guy,” she said. “Everyone around here just loves him.”

Down the street, at Hank’s Hoagies, a local sandwich-and-convenience store, there is a display case full of political memorabilia – buttons, pictures, campaign posters – and a life-size cutout of Mr. Biden.

Tom Owens, 48, the store’s owner, has a photo of Mr. Biden holding the establishment’s signature Italian hoagie.

Asked to consider a head-to-head contest between Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton, Mr. Owens displays some of the canny political sense associated with the city. “You know what our motto is at Hank’s?” he said with a smile. “‘We’re with you.’ Anyone who’s running – ‘we’re with you.’”

Beneath the affection for Mr. Biden, there is a deep devotion to Ms. Clinton. Lindsey Olechna, 23, a fourth-generation Scranton resident, works at Ale Mary’s, a downtown bar, while she searches for a full-time job as a teacher. “She was so close, right?” said Ms. Olechna, referring to the way Ms. Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Mr. Obama in 2008. Ms. Clinton should run again “because it was kind of ruined for her last time.”

Ms. Rafalko-McNulty, the county official, says that locals are already telling her they’re ready to help out with a new campaign by Ms. Clinton. “There’s a part of her in this town that will never leave,” she said. As for Mr. Biden, “I hope that for the party’s sake the two of them come to an amicable decision. … Because either way, Scranton wins.”

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