Pa. governor's race divides Democrats

Primary: Bruising contest between Scranton's Casey and Philadelphia's Rendell demonstrates deep divisions within the party.

May 01, 2002|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The road map says it is 126 miles from Philadelphia to Scranton. But in terms of the culture of the Democratic Party, the distance may be immeasurable.

The gulf between the socially conservative old-line regulars and the activist liberals is being demonstrated these days in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor that will be decided in a May 21 primary.

On the one hand is state Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr. of the Scranton Caseys, son of the former governor who captured attention a decade ago by trying to move the Democratic Party to oppose abortion rights but failed to win even a speaking slot at the national convention.

On the other is former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who won national celebrity as a successful mayor of a problem-filled city and as a forceful advocate for liberal Democratic theology - a reputation that led to an assignment as his party's general chairman.

The issue that most divides them is abortion rights. Casey shares his father's opposition, although he seems less preoccupied by the issue. It could hardly be otherwise from someone who comes from Scranton. It was there, after all, that Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter was met by several thousand anti-abortion protesters when he arrived in the city on the first night of his 1976 general election campaign.

And it was there two years ago that Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore was disinvited from an event at a Roman Catholic hospital because he favors abortion rights.

In contrast to Casey, Rendell has vowed to veto any attempts to add abortion restrictions, which the state's General Assembly would probably pass if the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. This is the state whose restrictions were upheld by the court, which ruled that states may enact curbs that do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman seeking abortion.

Neither Casey nor Rendell has stressed the abortion rights question in his campaigning. Their positions are well known to voters for whom the issue is important.

The key to this primary, as in any, is which campaign gets its supporters to the polling places. Casey has the backing of the state Democratic Party and of most of organized labor.

But Rendell is supported by abortion rights groups, whose backing can draw those for whom the issue is paramount.

The Rendell camp has tried to persuade Republicans, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, to change their party registrations, just this once, and vote in a Democratic primary for the candidate who favors abortion rights.

The Rendell effort fell short of the extravagant hopes of some in the campaign, but it produced more than 15,000 switches in suburban counties. These are some of the same social moderates who deserted Republicans to vote for Bill Clinton and Gore in the past three presidential elections. And in this primary, where a turnout of less than 1 million is likely and opinion polls show essentially a dead heat, such a cohesive bloc is a prize.

As Neil Oxman, a veteran Philadelphia consultant advising Rendell, put it: "In an election this close, a point or a point-and-a-half is a big deal."

The issues that divide these two Democrats center largely on the methods of solving problems that both candidates rank high on their list of priorities.

Pennsylvania's economy gets much attention in a state that is 48th in economic development and 49th in population growth. Both candidates have also focused on problems of the elderly: The state's fastest-growing demographic group is made up of those 85 and older.

Casey argues for a state minimum wage; Rendell contends that any increase must be enacted by Congress to apply nationwide if it is to be effective.

As seems to be the case everywhere, there is a dispute over education. But in this campaign, it centers mostly on how to fund improvement. The two men quibble over where to raise the money, but it's hard to imagine many voters sorting out the pluses and minuses of, for example, Rendell's proposals for raising cigarette taxes and putting slot machines into racetracks.

The real campaign, backed by more than $10 million in TV ads on each side, is about the quality of the candidates.

Casey has a reputation as one of the nicest men in Pennsylvania politics. In appearances, his pleasant manner is clearly an asset with voters tired of hard-edged politics. But the candidate's style aside, his effort seems based in part on cutting Rendell down to size - to the point where some see Casey as running a negative campaign.

Casey's ads snipe at Rendell's claims for his eight years as Philadelphia's mayor. And the 58-year-old former mayor counters by casting the 42-year- old Casey as inexperienced and ineffective in the real world.

Thus, a Casey television spot carries the headline "Violent Crime up 20%" and contends that while Rendell was mayor, the city was "caught falsifying its crime statistics" to make the situation look better than it was.

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