Democratic senatorial race in Pa. lifts political interest

GERMOND & WITCOVER

April 25, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

PHILADELPHIA -- The Pennsylvania primary campaign gettin the closest attention from political professionals over the final weekend is not Bill Clinton vs. Jerry Brown, but rather one that has been relatively ignored by the national press -- the contest for the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican Sen. Arlen Specter on Nov. 3.

The favorite in the five-candidate Democratic field all along has been Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel, who enjoys the backing of most of the political establishment. But Lynn Yeakel, a social activist here, has been gaining so fast that an upset is now considered possible. And some pros in both parties believe Ms. Yeakel would be clearly the most formidable opponent for Mr. Specter in the fall.

A poll just out by Millersville University shows the two in a virtual dead heat, with Ms. Yeakel at 26.1 percent, Mr. Singel at 25.8 and a third candidate, Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Colville at 15.2. Another indicator that Ms. Yeakel is moving is the fact that the Singel campaign has begun running television commercials attacking her, a compliment that campaigns usually pay only to those who are genuine threats.

Ms. Yeakel's own commercials have been credited with lifting her fortunes against Mr. Singel. They attack "career politicians" in general, a sitting-duck target this year, and especially Mr. Specter, who alienated many previously supportive women here with his prosecutorial treatment of Anita Hill during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Ms. Yeakel seems to have ideal credentials to take advantage of the special vulnerability that Mr. Specter is suffering now. She is a founder and president of Women's Way, an organization involved in helping women who are victims of rape or other abuse. Most importantly, she is not a politician. Unsurprisingly, polls show a clear gender gap in her favor among women voters.

Mr. Colville, the third major candidate in the Democratic field, has the backing of some prominent party leaders but has limited his advertising and personal campaigning to the Pittsburgh area.

On the Republican side, Mr. Specter is being challenged by state Rep. Stephen F. Freind, principal author of the state law restricting abortion now before the Supreme Court. But Mr. Specter holds what appears to be an insuperable advantage unless there is a freakishly small turnout.

But it is Ms. Yeakel's campaign that has caught the fancy of the political players. If Pennsylvania can elect a Harris Wofford over a Richard Thornburgh in 1991, the state this year might very well be able to send a liberal woman to occupy the other Senate seat. It would be a remarkable turnaround in a state that before Mr. Wofford's election had not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1962.

Philly Stakes

The hot campaign in Philadelphia is one for the 2nd Congressional District seat in which two prominent black Democrats are competing for the party's nomination -- U.S. Rep. Lucien Blackwell, who won the seat in a special election Nov. 5 after Rep. William H. Gray III resigned, and C. Delores Tucker, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee and chair of its black caucus.

Mr. Blackwell remains the nominal favorite, but Ms. Tucker, who has raised more than $200,000, has outspent the incumbent and poses a serious challenge. Among her contributors have been New York Mayor David N. Dinkins, who contributed $1,000 from personal funds and another $1,000 from his political committee; former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and feminist leader Gloria Steinem, each of whom gave the maximum $1,000; and the political action committee of the National Organization for Women, $5,000.

Ms. Tucker originally began a challenge to Mr. Blackwell in the special election last fall, then dropped out to concentrate on preparing for this primary. The question now is whether the incumbency Mr. Blackwell earned is enough of an asset to see him through.

The campaign had been marked by low-key exchanges until Ms. Tucker's hit-a-nerve complaint on a radio talk show that Mr. Blackwell had given a job on his staff to a Jewish woman rather than seeking a black woman. Given the tense relationship between Jews and blacks, the comment lighted a fire until Ms. OTucker softened it and pointed out that she has many Jewish supporters.

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