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Democratic Rep. John Murtha said Wednesday his home base of western Pennsylvania is racist and that could reduce Barack Obama‘s victory margin in the state by 4 percentage points.

The 17-term Democratic congressman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a story posted Wednesday on its Web site: “There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.”

Murtha said it has taken time for many Pennsylvania voters to come around to embracing a black presidential candidate, but that Obama should still win the state, though not in a runaway.

In a separate interview posted Wednesday on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Web site, Murtha said Obama has a problem with voters’ racial attitudes in western Pennsylvania that could trim his winning margin on Nov. 4.

The working-class region is a key battleground in Pennsylvania. The area is struggling economically, and has a high percentage of veterans and elderly voters. Murtha’s district outside Pittsburgh encompasses Johnstown and many small towns once dominated by steel and coal.

In a statement issued later Wednesday, Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey told The Associated Press: “It’s naive to think that race or gender doesn’t play a role in a voter’s perception of a candidate. Mr. Murtha makes the point that while race may be an issue for some, it’s evident that voters today are concerned about the issues that truly matter — issues like the economy, health care, and energy independence.”

Murtha, who backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state’s April primary, told the Post-Gazette that the older population has been “more hesitant” to support Obama. But in the past three months, he said groups he deals with regularly, such as veterans and senior citizens, have decided to back Obama.

Murtha said Republican John McCain has been stymied by the economy and the attacks on Obama’s character.

“I think Obama is going to win, but I don’t think it’s going to be a runaway,” Murtha said.

He told the Tribune-Review, however, that he sees no enthusiasm for either candidate in his district.

“The public is confused, they’re despondent, they’re unhappy. They want to see a change and I think the change is whatever the individual might believe it is,” he said.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Obama with a double-digit lead after surveys a few weeks ago indicated the race was close. Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards has said growing support among working-class voters in the state were behind the change.

In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell — another Clinton backer — told the Post-Gazette’s editorial board that some whites in the state were likely to vote against Obama in the primary because of his race. Clinton easily won that contest.

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