PENNSYLVANIA'S race for the U.S. Senate already has attracted the national political microscope, and that attention is sure to spread to the primary and general elections for governor.
As a result, the candidates seeking to replace Gov. Rendell may spend as much time talking about national issues like health-care reform, financial oversight for Wall Street and climate change as they will on statewide topics.
Attorney General Tom Corbett, the front-runner in the GOP primary for governor, took the national plunge last week on health-care reform.
Corbett was one of 13 Republican state attorneys general from around the country who wrote to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, calling a health-care-reform bill passed Dec. 24 "constitutionally flawed" and threatening a lawsuit.
Corbett is among four of those attorneys general running for governor in their states.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, called Corbett's health-care ploy a political "gimme" that helps his party standing in advance of the primary, which draws more conservative voters. Corbett faces U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach and state Rep. Sam Rohrer in the primary.
Gerlach drew the ire of the Democratic National Committee in November for voting against the U.S. House's version of a health-care-reform bill.
Rohrer ran a talk-radio campaign ad in Allentown criticizing President Obama during his visit there earlier this month. Rohrer complained about a "health-care takeover" and other issues.
Democrats, too, have weighed in on national issues while campaigning for governor.
Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, a former congressman, has campaigned on abortion coverage being included in the health-care-reform bills.
State Auditor General Jack Wagner last month expressed disappointment in President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty took U.S. Sen. John McCain to task for criticizing federal stimulus money sent to his city.
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox are also in the Democratic primary.
Sabato predicts that the high-profile Senate race in Pennsylvania will set the tone for controversial national issues to intrude into the gubernatorial campaigns.
The 'Specter Party'
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's bid for a sixth six-year term became a national story when he switched political parties in April, saying that he turned to the Democrats because he didn't want his record judged by conservative Republican primary voters in the state.
"He's not in the Republican Party," Sabato joked. "He's not in the Democratic Party. He's in the Specter Party."
Specter faces a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who has been courting liberal voters. As Specter migrates to Democratic issues, Sestak claims, the veteran senator is following his lead. Specter also faces state Rep. Bill Kortz in the primary.
While Specter holds a strong lead in the latest polling released Dec. 18 by Quinnipiac University, he is deadlocked with former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who challenged Specter in a close-call Republican primary election in 2004.
Toomey has criticized Specter and Sestak on national spending for health care and other issues. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign also has lambasted both Specter and Sestak.
That's an interesting dynamic, because the NRSC helped Specter fend off Toomey in 2004.
Toomey went on after that loss to lead the conservative Club for Growth, which helped sponsor primary-election challenges against moderate Republicans.
"He cost the Republicans a number of seats in Congress," Sabato said of Toomey. "It's really amazing to see [the GOP] try to adapt to him."
Republican Pet Luksik, an abortion opponent, is challenging Toomey in the GOP primary.
The Quinnipiac poll found opinions on Specter just about split down the middle. Toomey had a much higher favorable rating than unfavorable, but a majority of those polled didn't know enough about him to offer an opinion.
That leads Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, to predict a lot of negative advertising in the Senate race.
"The only way Arlen Specter can win is to convince Pennsylvania voters that they may not be wild about him but they'll like Pat Toomey even less," Brown said.
Still the economy, stupid
Gubernatorial candidates face two historical truths this year: Midterm elections tend to favor the party not in power in the White House, and voters routinely replace the governor with a candidate from the rival party every eight years.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who lost the 2002 Democratic primary for governor before winning his seat in 2006, said that gubernatorial races almost always focus on jobs and the economy. He expects that to be especially true in the current economic climate.
"I think that will be the predominant issue in both the Senate race and the gubernatorial race," Casey added.
That said, Casey agrees that national issues and voter fatigue for President Bush's administration played a significant role in his 2006 defeat of U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and helped assure Rendell's re-election to a second term.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said that some voters experience midterm "buyer's remorse" about their selection for president. That already was spotted in statewide races in Virginia and New Jersey last year.
"It's not so much that the Republicans have attracted voters," Madonna said. "It's that the Democrats have repelled independents."
Madonna said that national issues debated in the gubernatorial race will help influence which voters are engaged. And that's probably good news for Republicans.
Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University who studies politics, said that Republican candidates this year can solve a vexing problem by melding local and national issues.
"They've got a credibility and identity problem that surfaced in the last couple of elections," Miller said of the GOP. "That's something they want and need to do. So in a sense it will cross-pollinate very easily."