An uphill fight for Pa. GOP candidate

Fisher faces `star' Rendell in race for governor

October 14, 2002|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Mike Fisher arrived at the Rotary Club luncheon here the other day to find he was only the second of two speakers on the program. So he sat by for 15 or 20 minutes while a "golf property analyst" made a sales pitch for a new course.

Fisher is the state attorney general and Republican candidate for governor. But in the priorities of these Rotarians, he was chopped liver. He took it all with equanimity, remarking as he drove away only that he thought it was "a little strange" to have two speakers.

That is the way things seem to be going for the Republican as he struggles uphill against his Democratic opponent, Ed Rendell, the exuberant former mayor of Philadelphia. With only three weeks left in the campaign, Fisher is running 10 to 15 percentage points behind in a campaign the political wise guys say is all over.

Fisher puts a brave face on his prospects. By Election Day, he promises his audiences, "this race is going to be competitive." His advisers speak of spending $1 million a week on television advertising and even speculate that a low turnout could help because the Republican Party organization, honed by years of competing with organized labor, is unusually strong.

But Fisher has been dealt a weak hand.

After eight years as mayor of Philadelphia and a year as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Al Gore campaign, Rendell has acquired the kind of personal celebrity in his home state enjoyed by few politicians below the presidential level. When he arrives at City Park in Monessen for the Greater Mon Valley Democratic Steak Fry, mothers are holding up the kids to get a look at him.

And he has burnished that star quality by spending about $18 million to win a Democratic primary over Robert Casey Jr., the son of the former governor. Moreover, he has emerged from the primary with Casey and his leading supporters "fully engaged" in the Rendell effort, according to Casey aide Vanessa DeSalvo.

Casey is speaking and raising money for the candidate from Philadelphia, whatever tension developed during the primary put aside in the interest of electing a Democratic governor after eight years of Republicans in the office -- first Tom Ridge and, since Ridge became director of homeland security, Mark Schweiker.

"He's reached out to our supporters, and he's done real well," says Casey.

`Something different'

Equally important perhaps is the context of the campaign. Economic concerns have dominated the state's politics for generations, particularly in the Monongahela Valley and the western Pennsylvania communities that had been so dependent on the steel industry.

"I'm looking to Rendell for something different here," says Tino Rossini, lathering steak sauce over his meat. "My father and three uncles all spent their lives working steel, and what did it get them? I tried to get away from it by driving [a truck], but that's kind of shaky right now."

Rendell sees the serious decay in the Mon valley -- "I'm a free trader by nature but we shouldn't have let this happen to steel" -- and promises new approaches to provide jobs.

He points to his history in Philadelphia using public money to prime the pump and produce a flow of private capital. In his eight years as mayor, he reminds his audiences, the city built 18 new hotels. With the first 14, he says, public help was needed, but by the time the last four were built the city was booming and the developers didn't need the public money as an incentive. His message: Send me to Harrisburg, and I'm going to do the same thing for the state.

"Rendell is giving people some hope," Casey says. "He really connected with people in southwest Pennsylvania" -- even to the point that he carried Pittsburgh in the primary. Some professionals believe he can break even there with Fisher, who is from Pittsburgh.

The preoccupation with the condition of the economy has taken some of the usual heat out of other questions. A mayor of Philly has never found it easy to break through a wall of suspicion in the rest of the state. But Rendell has rallied Democrats statewide by focusing on jobs and such bread-and-butter concerns as the cost of prescription drugs and property taxes.

Nor is there any indication of a national factor in the political equation here. Opinion surveys show President Bush has high approval ratings from Pennsylvania voters but, Fisher says, "they're not connecting support for Bush to support for the Republican gubernatorial candidate."

On the contrary, Fisher says all the debate over Iraq and the national economy makes it more difficult for him to be heard when he talks about jobs, education and taxes. He is trying to tell voters that Rendell is a throwback liberal Democrat who will tax and spend to try to solve problems, but the polls suggest not enough voters are listening.

Defecting to Democrats

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