While much of the attention in Pennsylvania's May 18 primary has been focused on the increasingly nasty, knock-down, drag-out fight between opportunistic Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, Democratic primary voters will also choose a successor to Ed Rendell, the state's gregarious, back-slapping governor whose far-reaching political tentacles are having a much larger impact on the primary election than most Pennsylvanians realize.
Already on everybody's radar, Pennsylvania's blockbuster U.S. Senate primary attracted considerable national attention when the 80-year-old Specter -- a seasoned political street fighter with an instinct for the jugular -- unleashed a round of particularly vicious television commercials attacking Sestak's voting record and maliciously accusing his rival of having been "relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate."
Rank and file Democrats across the Keystone State were appalled by the intensely negative nature of Specter's TV spot, an inflammatory attack reminiscent of the infamous swift-boating of John Kerry and the cravenly mean-spirited television ads used against Georgia's Max Cleland, the highly-decorated Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and his right forearm while serving his country. The ad was clearly intended to raise doubts about the retired three-star admiral's competence as a leader.
Democrats expect that kind of scorched-earth campaign from Republicans, but it isn't the sort of thing they're accustomed to experiencing in a Democratic primary. "Specter's ad was beyond the pale, an insult to every veteran in the state," said John Wyatt, a Democratic activist from Quakertown who is actively supporting Joseph M. Hoeffel for governor. Wyatt said that he and his wife also plan to vote for Sestak. "I didn't realize that reelecting a Republican dinosaur -- a guy who supported most of George W. Bush's agenda, including the massive tax cuts for the wealthy -- was what Obama had in mind when he talked about "Change We Can Believe In,'" he sighed.
Sestak, who vigorously refuted the charge that he had been relieved of duty and predicted that his opponent's nefariously dishonest "swift-boat tactics" will eventually backfire on the longtime lawmaker, responded a few days ago with a new television ad of his own showing Sarah Palin and George W. Bush praising Specter -- a brilliant and sure-fire way of motivating the party's otherwise demoralized liberal activists. It was a masterful stroke, one that is likely to propel Sestak to a stunning victory on May 18.
Despite the growing bitterness of the campaign, Gov. Rendell, a skilled political tactician who once headed the Democratic National Committee, remains inexorably committed to Specter's candidacy.
"I normally don't endorse in Democratic primaries," Rendell explained in a recent interview with Real Clear Politics, adding, however, that he made a rare exception when he joined with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in endorsing Specter as soon as he joined the Democratic Party in the spring of 2009.
"Fast Eddie," as he is commonly known in Philadelphia political circles, makes no apology for supporting his longtime friend and ally. "I did endorse Senator Specter because I was part of the group that got him to switch parties," he said.
The Obama White House also remains firmly committed to Specter, the longest serving Senator in Pennsylvania history.
Leading by as many as twenty points throughout most of the campaign, the state's aging senior Senator suddenly finds himself in a race every bit as close as the monumental struggle he faced against insurgent conservative challenger Pat Toomey in the 2004 Republican primary -- a nail-biting contest in which he prevailed by only 17,000 votes.
The latest daily tracking poll by the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion, released on May 7, showed Sestak pulling slightly ahead of Specter for the first time since formally declaring his candidacy at a crowded VFW hall in his suburban Philadelphia district last August.
This year's primary battle must be a case of de'jÃ vu for the senescent Senator who, as a young Warren Commission staffer, introduced the highly controversial "single bullet theory" in the JFK assassination.
The race has grown so close in recent days that White House and senior Democrats, including Rendell, are reportedly worried that the tenacious lawmaker, whom they had aggressively lobbied to switch parties last spring, will now go down to defeat in his adopted party in an ill-fated bid for an unprecedented sixth term.
Party leaders are obviously beginning to fret. A Sestak victory "could be cataclysmic," warns T. J. Rooney, the state Democratic chairman.
He's right. It would be cataclysmic -- for Rendell and Specter. It would also be a setback for the Obama Administration.
Lost in the tumult and excitement of the hotly-contested race between the feisty 31-year Navy veteran and the party-jumping octogenarian whom he hopes to replace in the legislative body the late Eugene McCarthy caustically described as "the last primitive society in the world," is a four-way gubernatorial primary full of intrigue and mystery.