Ms. McGinty, I presume

McGinty3
Katie McGinty at a Democratic Party forum at Carnegie Mellon University in January.

WITH THE Democratic primary for U.S. Senate just a month away and probably half the Democratic electorate not tuned in, Katie McGinty is undergoing a candidate metamorphosis.

Mostly gone is the over-peppy cheerleader and steady spouter of talking points running a campaign recently labeled flat and flailing.

Now there's spring in the step of the candidate who, despite being picked by state and national party leaders, seemed destined just weeks ago to fare only somewhat better than her last-place finish in the four-way 2014 gubernatorial primary.

Then she garnered only 8 percent of the vote.

But this week at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon, there was a focused and deliberate McGinty, speaking pointedly in a moderated voice that immediately made me suspicious.

After her 15-minute address, read from a prepared text, I suggested to one of her aides that the speech was evidence McGinty had been whisked away to some undisclosed location for media training - or medication.

No explicit denial was offered.

McGinty, in her speech, never mentioned her April 26 primary opponents: former Rep. Joe Sestak, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, and, for now, Pittsburgh-area small businessman Joe Vodvarka (his petitions are under challenge).

Instead, she acted like the presumed nominee going after incumbent Republican Pat Toomey. She hit him for not doing his job when he sided with Senate leadership in refusing to consider President Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

She tied him to possible GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, part of "the Trump/Toomey team," a pair that stoke anger and "inflame rather than inspire."

(This, by the by, is a stretch. Say what you want about Pat Toomey. But he's no Donald Trump.)

And, yes, there was the litany of Democratic talking points about affordable health care, a living wage, help for student loans, preserving Social Security and Medicare, etc.

Linking arms, in other words, with the messages of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to draw in the entire Democratic base.

And even McGinty's tone in recent TV ads has changed.

One ad hits Toomey's "obstructionism" on the court issue, saying it threatens union rights and abortion rights, right in the Democratic wheelhouse.

Another focuses on equal pay for women. She says she'll fight "for my daughters [she has three] and yours." The gender thing for sure.

But her delivery is more powerful, less Pollyannaish.

She has ties to the Clintons, and as Clinton gains and Sanders fades, McGinty is positioned to benefit. A less-contested presidential primary here can mean lower turnout, less local fire for Sanders, so less local fire for Fetterman, a supporter and ideological soul mate of the senator from Vermont.

Also, outside dough from the national party and the likes of EMILY's List (a very conservative pal of mine wants to start "Bill's List" to fund male candidates) is likely to give her spending parity with the well-financed Sestak.

Whether a "new" McGinty is new enough in time enough to matter is a question.

She's trailed Sestak by double digits in public polls. I suspect she still does.

Sestak's a campaign machine switched to "on" for years.

Before McGinty got in the race, Ed Rendell, now her campaign chairman, said that those taking on Sestak in a primary "do so at their own peril."

McGinty's drawn controversy over GOP requests for her government emails during her six-month stint as Gov. Wolf's chief of staff. The issue's in the courts.

Republicans hit her for lucrative stints on private energy company boards after public service in environmental posts at state and federal levels.

And the GOP recently filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing McGinty's campaign, specifically Rendell, of improperly coordinating strategy with outside groups. Rendell denies doing so.

The race, like everything in politics, is overshadowed by Trumpmania; hence large numbers of undecided (uninformed?) voters.

Can she go from a last-place 8 percent finish to a first-place win? McGinty says "every campaign is different." The "new" McGinty's trying to prove it.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer