Voters in Pennsylvania, perennially a swing state on the American political scene, may be preparing to give the party of Barack Obama a sharp kick in the gut when polling stations open tomorrow to determine the winners of both primary contests and a key special election in its rural southwest.
With the entire Democratic establishment on edge, ex-President Bill Clinton was dispatched last night to the rambling congressional district close to Pittsburgh held for decades by the late representative John Murtha. He was there to bolster Democrat hopeful Mark Critz who, at the finishing line, is trying to shake off his Republican foe, Tim Burns.
That Mr Critz should be in difficulty in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one is most ominous for Mr Obama. A loss tomorrow will be taken as a clear indicator that his party, in spite of an improved national economic picture, will get pummelled in the November mid-term elections.
But Pennsylvania could deal a double blow to Mr Obama's prestige. Also in the mix tomorrow is the Democratic primary contest for a US Senate seat. That race stars Arlen Specter, who after 28 years serving as a Republican last year defected to the Democrats. While Specter has the support of Mr Obama and the Democratic leadership, he may well lose the nomination to fellow Democrat Joe Sestak.
"Our little Senate race here is being watched in many parts of the world," noted Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "The President has a hand in this, and the Democratic establishment has a hand in it."
As the incumbent on Capitol Hill, Mr Specter in normal times would have a built-in advantage. But 2010 is not shaping up to be normal. Primary races in other key states tomorrow may reinforce what has been clear for several months already, thanks in part to the rise of the Tea Party: Americans are deeply disenchanted with the political class and just about everyone in Washington. They want change – again.
"They've lied so much, you don't know what to believe," complains Mark Griffith, who will vote in the race to replace Murtha. "I think people are getting tired of the status quo. It used to be that these people were elected to serve us. It seems now that they get in there and they're serving themselves."
The Tea Party helped persuade local Republican leaders to field Burns, a conservative millionaire businessman, in the Murtha seat. And to help him, the party sent Senator Scott Brown into the district to headline several rallies. It was Brown who, with Tea Party backing, first shook the landscape by snatching the US Senate seat in Massachusetts previously held by the late Teddy Kennedy.
If Burns pips Critz to represent the district, "it'll send shockwaves across the nation", predicts Mr Madonna. Lara Brown, professor of politics at Villanova University, concurs. "What's at stake is the message to Washington and the political direction of our country," she told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It could literally moderate all the policy in Washington."
The irritation in the electorate is not all directed at the Democrats. The Republicans are braced for trouble too. Their focus will partly be on a Kentucky district where the candidate endorsed by the party and by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is almost certain to be trampled by a Tea Party insurgent, Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Texas libertarian and presidential hopeful.
But as the party in power, the Democrats are regarded as having the most to lose. Certainly, if Mr Specter, a giant of Capitol Hill, is pushed aside in the Senate primary race, the embarrassment will be deep. TJ Rooney, the Democratic state chairman, went further, saying a win for Sestak would be "cataclysmic".
For himself, Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral now serving in the House of Representatives, said last night that he was confident of toppling Specter for the right to run as the Democrat senate candidate in November. He has been running TV spots with footage of Specter being embraced politically by George Bush in the days when he was a Republican. On his bid to seize the seat, he told CNN: "Never do something that's not going to happen." He added: "I'm going to win and I'm looking forward to Senator Specter's support."
The peril facing incumbents in general has been highlighted by the recent ousting by his state party of Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah. Another veteran of Washington, he was voted down as a candidate in November at his party's state convention last week.
But Pennsylvania may prove especially indicative. "Pennsylvania is a battleground state. It has trended Democratic for a number of elections now," Ms Brown said. "If Pennsylvania is essentially trending anti-incumbent, that should be a major alarm bell."Reuse content