GOP panic in Pennsylvania over Senate race On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

November 04, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

UPPER DARBY, Pa. -- Former Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, addressing attentive senior citizens the other day, trotted out a 14-point plan for "affordable health care" that he promised to seek if elected next Tuesday to the U.S. Senate. Thornburgh blasted what he called "the one-size-fits-all nationalized system" proposed by his Democratic opponent, Sen. Harris Wofford. Thornburgh said he had laid out his "principles for a national affordable health care strategy over a month ago" but was now spelling them out less than a week before the election. The timing of Thornburgh's remarks was as notable politically as the substance. It was a belated acknowledgment that Wofford's own focus on national health care was striking an exceedingly responsive chord with voters.

Even if Wofford, in making national health insurance the centerpiece of his campaign, fails to upset Thornburgh on Tuesday and just runs close, the result will be taken as a warning to President Bush heading into his re-election campaign and a formula for a Democratic presidential upset next year.

"A few days to go and he's talking about our issues," exults James Carville, Wofford's top campaign strategist. "Yesterday he was for a tax cut for the middle class, today he's for national health insurance. Tomorrow he may be a Democrat." That extreme transformation is not likely, but those who have seen Carville manage to portray an incumbent senator as a Washington outsider and identify an eight-year Pennyslvania governor as a Washington insider would not put anything past him.

Wofford's brief six-month tenure as a senator, appointed by Democratic Gov. Bob Casey upon the death of Republican Sen. John Heinz in a mid-air plane collision, has permitted him to adopt the posture of an outsider, while he ties Thornburgh to the Reagan and Bush administrations he served for about three years. In Wofford's late television ads, in fact, he is identified as neither a Democrat nor a senator.

The success of painting Thornburgh as a Bush standpatter is seen in a recent editorial endorsement in the Harrisburg Patriot. It said: "If you think the country's pretty much on the right course, Thornburgh's your man. If you think the nation has to address a number of serious issues soon or face further economic and social deterioration, Harris Wofford deserves your vote."

Wofford, in his ads in the closing days, also employs the same basic argument Democratic presidential candidates are using against President Bush that he is ignoring problems at home. "At a time when government seems to care about everyone in the world but us," one says, "Harris Wofford says its time for America to take care of Americans again. It's time to take care of our own."

Through all this, Thornburgh has been reminding Pennsylvanians of his eight years as governor, almost to the point that he sounds like he's running for a third term in Harrisburg rather than for the U.S. Senate. "What I stood for as governor," he said at a plant in a North Philadelphia "enterprise zone" created when he was governor, "I'll stand for as senator."

Whether that promise will be enough may depend on whether Thornburgh can hold traditional GOP strength in the suburbs, where polls suggest some serious slippage.

A further indication that Thornburgh is in trouble is the fact his campaign continues to hammer Wofford in a negative television ad suggesting he has taken money from sleazy sources.

The ad shows a photo of "notorious big arms dealer" Adnan Khashoggi, later a key figure in the Iran-contra scandal, and asks "what kind of man would solicit money" from him? The implication is that Wofford sought campaign contributions from Khashoggi. The fact is Khashoggi once offered to underwrite Middle Eastern studies at Bryn Mawr College when Wofford was its president and Wofford agreed to seek scholarship funds for two Arab women.

Thornburgh, roundly castigated for the ad by The Philadelphia Inquirer, says he plans to run it through the election because taking the money reflects poorly on Wofford's "integrity." Others see the continued use of the ad as another indication of panic in the Thornburgh camp as Pennsylvanians prepare to vote.

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