Pa.'s Ridge on political plateau


BLOOMBURG, Pa. -- At the Bloomburg Fair, Tom Ridge is in high good humor when he poses for a picture with the grand champion Holstein. "You can see the caption underneath the picture," he says. " 'Which one's the governor?' "

The Republican governor has good reason for his ebullience. If his campaign for a second term were a prizefight, the referee would stop it. A new opinion poll gives him 56 percent of the vote to 17 for his hapless Democratic challenger, Ivan Itkin.

Mr. Ridge is spending more than $10 million for his impending landslide and has several million still available for television commercials and voter drives.

Mr. Itkin hasn't aired a single television spot in the general election campaign and has $60,000 on hand, a fraction of what he would need for a modest one-week television buy. The new poll says 80 percent of Pennsylvania voters still don't know who he is.

Front-runner's battle

So Mr. Ridge has nothing to worry about except the potential for complacency among Republicans -- a danger he is trying to forestall by campaigning as if he were running behind.

At 53, Mr. Ridge appears ideally situated for a place on the Republican national ticket in 2000. But he has ruled out a run for the presidential nomination because, he says, "the timing is wrong." He is not comfortable with the notion of winning a second term and immediately plunging into a national campaign.

But Mr. Ridge also has what appears to be the ideal resume for the vice presidential nomination. He grew up in modest circumstances in Erie, won a scholarship to Harvard, served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, got his law degree and then served 12 years in the House of Representatives before winning the governorship four years ago.

He is also one of those natural campaigners who can spend a full hour in the cattle barn here in a running dialogue with voters.

But there is one little problem. He supports abortion rights -- something his party's religious right has made a disqualifying position for the national ticket. Mr. Ridge endorses the dTC Pennsylvania law that applies several restrictions on abortion but was upheld by the Supreme Court as not imposing an "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure.

Mr. Ridge prefers, of course, to talk about the record of his first term in cutting taxes, overhauling workmen's compensation, creating jobs, attacking crime, improving education and reforming welfare.

Democrat Itkin, 62 and a veteran legislator, complains that Mr. Ridge's policies have been tilted to favor big business and the affluent. But Mr. Ridge has sold his record well enough so that he has won the endorsement of several Democratic local officials and several major labor unions.

Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, the single most influential Democrat in the state, has allowed himself to be listed as a co-chairman of the Itkin campaign, but he is essentially sitting it out.

The abortion issue is not a significant factor in the campaign. Peg Luksik, a devout anti-abortion activist, is running again as the candidate of the Constitutional Party. Four years ago, she captured 13 percent of the total vote, but new polls show her with less than 10 percent this time. That may suggest more people feel that issue is settled or they won't vote exclusively on it.

But the fundamentalist Christians in the South and far West still represent an important constituency of the Republican Party. And their influence over Republican leaders in Congress is obvious in, among other things, the zeal with which those leaders are pursuing President Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Holes in big tent

Mr. Ridge remains hopeful that the party will find some way to get beyond the issue as a litmus test at the next nominating convention in 2000. But anti-abortion Republicans talk every four years about making the party a "big tent" that can accommodate differences on some issues, then end up caving in to the religious right when the time comes.

If that happens again in the 2000 campaign. Tom Ridge won't make it to the short list for vice president -- no matter how much he runs up the score Nov. 3.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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