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Bush and Gore run neck and neck in Pennsylvania

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Vice President Al Gore turned up in Philadelphia one day last week and then in Pittsburgh two days later.

The presumed Democratic presidential nominee is spending a lot of time in Pennsylvania these days - a dozen visits in the past year or so.

As T. J. Rooney, the 35-year-old state legislator from Bethlehem serving as Gore's point man for the state, puts it, "He's definitely spending the requisite amount of time."

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, Gore's Republican rival, is here almost as often. The message is clear that Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes are, once again, a critical prize in the presidential election Nov. 7.

The conventional wisdom of political professionals in both parties is that California and New York are likely to vote Democratic, Texas and Florida Republican.

And that means the election is likely to be decided by the 99 electoral votes in the five states of what is sometimes called the Rust Belt - from New Jersey west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Pennsylvania is the largest and is the one that most reliably swings back and forth with the tide.

It is also a state with all the disparate elements of the electorate whose performance Election Day will decide who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.

Will black voters turn out in the kind of numbers in Philadelphia that Gore needs from the African-American community nationally?

Will Bush be able to reclaim the moderate Republicans and independents in the Philadelphia suburbs who swung behind Bill Clinton in the past two elections?

Will organized labor truly deliver for the Democrats in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania or just go through the motions?

The consensus of political insiders in both parties seems to be that Bush is holding a narrow lead, up to 7 percent in one poll, although far from home free.

But the context of the campaign seems more hospitable to a Democrat.

"With this economy," says a Democrat who insisted on anonymity, "even Gore can't kick it away."

The Democrats are also encouraged by their success last month in a special legislative election in Lackawanna County (Scranton) in which each party invested several hundred thousand dollars. They see the result as evidence the issues are running Democratic.

There is, nonetheless, a significant variable in the equation - the possibility that Bush might choose Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate for vice president.

"The only wild card is Ridge," said Neil Oxman, a leading Democratic consultant in Philadelphia.

Surveys show the popular governor adding at least 2 percentage points and perhaps as much as 6 or 7 points to Bush's position, enough so that Ridge's partisans are making the case that their governor can deliver more electoral votes than anyone else being considered.

The Democrats concede Ridge's appeal, if not the state.

"It makes some difference," says Democrat Rooney, "but it's still absolutely winnable. It doesn't guarantee Pennsylvania for Bush."

Gore can still carry the state, says U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, "but it certainly makes it more difficult."

On the ticket or not, Ridge is deeply involved in the Bush campaign.

His chief political operative, Leslie Gromis, is serving as the Texas governor's campaign coordinator for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and is trying to energize the blocs of voters who elected Ridge to a second term in a runaway two years ago.

The Republicans in this state have enjoyed an organizational advantage over the Democrats for at least two generations of voters, relying on what Gromis calls "coalition development" with veterans, the elderly and sportsmen as a counter to the Democratic alliances with organized labor.

Gun owners are particularly important in a state second only to Texas in issuing hunting licenses.

"They're active, and they're vocal," Gromis says.

Reaching for elderly

The Democrats, however, are already using their unregulated "soft money" to pay for television commercials in which Gore reiterates his promise to protect Social Security, an issue with some reach in a state with a large population of retired voters with limited incomes.

Perhaps the most important question about the campaign is whether Bush can win back those suburban independents and moderate Republicans who abandoned his father in 1992 and voted heavily for Clinton in the past two campaigns.

The total Republican vote for president fell 500,000 from 1988 to 1992 and remained at the lower level in 1996, when Ross Perot was far less of a factor than he had been in 1992.

"The key here is the suburban vote," says consultant Oxman. The swing in the suburbs was pronounced.

Question of 'family values'

In the 13th congressional district centered in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, the Republicans lost 38,000 votes in 1992, and three-fourths of them went to Clinton.

Nor was there any mystery about the reason - a reaction against "family values" as defined by Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. The numbers in other middle-class suburban areas around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are similar.

The question now is whether Bush can handle the touchy cultural issues - abortion rights in particular - in a way that holds more of those voters.

The first test will come at the end of the month at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Bush has said he will accept the language from previous platforms opposing abortions in any circumstances.

But he has also said he will not insist on opposition to abortion rights as a litmus test for his vice president or for those he will nominate for the Supreme Court.

The matter will be given high visibility because Ridge favors abortion rights with some restrictions. If Bush chooses Ridge, he will be sending one message to the moderates. If not, he will be sending another.

Other elements

There are several other elements of the campaign here that might make a difference in turnout and party enthusiasm.

One is the Senate contest between Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic Rep. Ron Klink, both of whom are from western Pennsylvania.

Six months ago, strategists in both parties believed that Santorum was one of the two or three most vulnerable Republicans because he combined extremely conservative views on many issues with a penchant for brash showmanship in the Senate.

Moreover, Klink seemed ideally positioned to take on Santorum. He is a conservative Democrat who could challenge Santorum on both his geographic and issues base.

"We thought he was going to give us a lot of trouble," a Republican says. But Klink had to endure a tough three-way primary that gave him the nomination but left him essentially broke for the general election.

So the question now is whether Klink can raise the $4 million to $6 million he will need to be reasonably competitive in the general election in a state with two major and several minor media markets.

Contests for House seats

There are also at least three contests for the House of Representatives in which the campaign will be intense. One is for Klink's seat.

A second is the Republican challenge to Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, who managed to win a narrow victory two years ago in that suburban Montgomery County district.

And the third is for the 10th District seat around Scranton won by Republican Donald L. Sherwood over the man challenging him again, Patrick Casey, the son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey and brother of state auditor general Robert Casey Jr.

Given the closeness of the competition for control of the House in which the Democrats need only six more seats, it is not an exaggeration to say that this year Pennsylvania could be pivotal in more than the presidential campaign. So far, however, few voters seem engaged by the campaign.

Gromis says people might be more interested in the Philadelphia area because the convention is getting so much media attention there.

"Otherwise," she says, "we're definitely into the summertime lull."

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