Pennsylvania Hosts Suspenseful Democratic Primary

By: - May 17, 2002 12:00 am

Remember the Florida presidential election? Lots of recounts, mud-slinging and a late night phone call from Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell imploring Al Gore not to concede.

On Tuesday in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary for governor, it could be Rendell who gets a call telling him to hang in there against rival Bob Casey Jr. The party nomination fight between Rendell, the former two-term mayor of Philadelphia, and state auditor general Casey could be that close, depending on the turnout.

.The latest independent polls have Rendell up by as much as 10 points. But, says Rendell campaign spokesman Dan Fee, “We recognize that this is not a won race. It’s all about voter turnout.”

Going into the weekend, the Casey-Rendell battle had already become the most expensive race in state history, with the campaigns together having spent an estimated $25 million to $35 million on advertising, telephone banks, direct mail and get-out-the-vote preparations for Tuesday’s balloting.

Despite the latest polls giving Rendell the edge, political observers say the race could cut either way. That’s because polls are untrustworthy in primary races. Voters surveyed are not always the hardcore, committed party stalwarts who traditionally show up on primary day.

“It’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen,” says Len Champney, who heads the political science department at the University of Scranton.

“The media’s going to have be really careful about not calling this thing until all the precincts have reported. I hope they learned their lesson from Florida,” he says.

That’s the read from the Casey and Rendell camps as well. Neither is in a boastful mood about what Tuesday will bring.

Rendell expects to win if the Philadelphia vote is heavy in his favor and he does well in some of the out-lying counties. Casey, the son of former Gov. Robert Casey, hopes to run strong in the state’s rural areas, Pittsburgh and the mid-size cities like Scranton, his home town. He is banking on statewide union support, particularly in Philadelphia, to make the difference by pushing more voters to the polls.

“I think it’s going to be a long night. It’s going to come down to the wire,” says Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, a Casey supporter.

The race has been a long one with the two candidates slugging it out for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Until recently, their stands on education, taxes and economic development were the cornerstone of their efforts to attract voters. But lately, negative ads have been dominating the airwaves.

Casey, the more conservative candidate with pro-gun, antiabortion views, is considered by many to have the best chance of ending Republican domination of the governorship and the state capitol, where both chambers are controlled by the GOP. But his call for a minimum wage increase and stronger healthcare and prescription drug coverage have put him in good standing with party moderates as well.

Some political analysts, however, believe Rendell would be the tougher candidate for Republicans because of his strong pro-business views and his plan to lower the state’s high property taxes. He also wants to boost education funding through hikes in gambling and cigarette taxes. His gun control and pro-choice positions are in stark contrast with not only Casey’s views, but also those of Attorney General Mike Fisher, who is running without opposition for his party’s nomination.

Pennsylvania’ regional differences have made it hard for either Democrat to devise a statewide strategy that would appeal to a wide cross-section of voters. Philadelphia has made the transition to the new world of biotechnology and computer-based jobs. The rest of the state, however, is still struggling to break the ties to coal and steel that have dominated for generations.

“Pennsylvania is unusual because there are so many regions with economic and cultural differences.That’s why it’s always been a swing state in presidential elections and hard to read politically,” Champney says.

Casey sees the diversity as a plus in his campaign. “Even though we are a diverse state there are a lot of common concerns, whether it’s healthcare, public education (or) jobs. And we’re trying very hard to present our ideas on those issues to as many people as we can,” Casey told

Polls show that most Pennsylvanians view job security as the number one issue, eclipsing education and taxes. That may be because the state ranks 48th in the nation in economic development. The state’s unemployment rate is well over 6 percent. It is also home to the nation’s second oldest population and has one of the highest property tax structures in the country.

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