John Baer: Pols in both parties are off to real slow start

POLITICS TODAY, to steal from Forrest Gump's momma, is "like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Take Pennsylvania. No idea.

In four contested statewide races - Democratic and Republican primaries for governor and U.S. Senate - polling shows no candidate getting traction.

Is there a message in that?

In the GOP Senate primary featuring former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, of Allentown, and veteran activist Peg Luksik, of Johnstown, there's no head-to-head polling. Luksik spokesman Steve Clark says, "I wish I knew why." I do. It's assumed that party-backed Toomey's a lock for the nomination.

But given attitudes toward traditional pols, interest in grass-roots/Tea Party-types and Luksik's showing in past campaigns (she won 46 percent of the 1990 GOP primary vote for governor) such assumptions might not hold. Especially since in a recent poll, Toomey's name pulls "no opinion" from 62 percent of voters.

In the other races, including a nationally watched Democratic Senate primary, numbers clearly suggest that anything's possible.

Last week's Franklin & Marshall College Poll shows 44 percent of Democratic voters "undecided" between Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak. This despite Specter's being in office since Pennsylvania was the Quaker Province, and Sestak putting out more press releases than the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing puts out folding money.

It must be a case of nobody likes Specter and nobody knows Sestak.

The same poll shows 65 percent of Republicans "undecided" in the GOP primary for governor. This despite party-endorsed Tom Corbett being a two-time statewide winner, the most visible, aggressive state attorney general since the office became elective in 1980 and running against arch-conservative and unknown Berks County state Rep. Sam Rohrer.

Sixty-five percent undecided? Grab yer pitchforks and hear the Rohrer!

At a forum last week in Harrisburg sponsored by United Way of Pennsylvania (not the best audience for a right-wing Republican), Rohrer not only showed (Corbett did not) but he didn't pander, he didn't perturb and he held his own against the Democrats.

Speaking of whom, a whopping 72 percent are "undecided" in the Democratic race for governor. None of the entrants - Joe Hoeffel, Dan Onorato, Jack Wagner, Tony Williams - has above 6 percent support.

I mean, why not just draw straws?

Philly state Sen. Williams just entered the race, and not with a bang. He ducked the United Way event, a natural for a Democrat from a city with significant social needs.

But Montco Commissioner Hoeffel filled the void by making the pitch that the state needs to face issues of indigence, especially in Philly where one in four residents lives in poverty. Hoeffel also chided Williams and Corbett by praising the value of public forums and noting (rightly) that "all of us who want to be governor ought to be showing up."

Allegheny County Executive Onorato, who leads in fundraising, continues to talk about leading a rebirth in Pittsburgh and the county: no new taxes, streamlined government, etc. His broad approach is not unlike that of top supporter Ed Rendell (I saved my city, I push education). And he might well be his party's nominee.

But state Auditor General Wagner has support among many party regulars and statewide interest groups, especially veterans, and does well at forums. He bears more watching than I originally thought.

He just needs to overcome a genetic aversion to raising money and a habit of stating the obvious as if it were revelation: At the United Way event, to a question about food banks, he said, "There's nothing more critical to life than air and food and water." Who could argue?

The Democratic Senate primary? Expect a firefight. Specter and Sestak have lots to spend and lots of fodder to spend it on. Specter needs to combat views that he's in office too long (30 years) and switched parties solely for preservation. Sestak needs to get known and weather the certain storm that Specter will send his way.

It's March. Primaries are in May. Maybe it's early. Maybe voters are sick of politics and politicians and the waste and gridlock they've come to represent. But somebody's going to win these races.

And it comes down to this: If traditional politics determine outcomes, Toomey, Specter, Corbett and Onorato win. But if the citizen anger and frustration we hear so much about spreads and reaches voting booths? Then these elections could end up like a box of chocolates.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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