I KNOW IT'S early but, ya gotta admit, it's interesting.

Here we are in a state that hasn't backed a Republican for president since '88 (and back then the Democrat was that little guy in a tank), where a Democratic governor just won re-election by a ton, where a Democrat just won a Senate seat for only the second time in 44 years and where the state House just went Democratic for the first time in a dozen years.

Oh, and where Republican President Bush is as popular as PennDOT.

One could argue that when it comes to presidential races Pennsylvania is bright blue, and the party on the move here is the Democratic Party.

Yet yesterday's Daily News/Keystone Poll says voters favor either Republican Rudy Giuliani or John McCain over either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in next year's presidential election.

What? Voters think Democrats have nothing to offer? Or is the Commonwealth a backwater Bubba place not partial to women or candidates of color?

The campaign to come will answer the first question. For the second, there is some history.

We've never elected a minority or a woman governor or U.S. senator, though a few have tried.

There's just one woman, Allyson Schwartz, and one black, Chaka Fattah, in our 21-member congressional delegation.

In our 253-strong Legislature, there are just 21 members of color (all from Philly, Pittsburgh or Chester) and only 37 women, a dismal 14.6 percent, ranking us 44th in the nation - the highest ranking, by the way, we've ever had.

We're the only Northern state ranked this poorly. The only states worse are West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky and South Carolina.

I'm just sayin': Nobody should be shocked if Pennsylvania doesn't embrace Hillary or Obama.

And a look at the regional breakdown of poll results in the Giuliani/Hillary match-up underscores a view that we are two states - Philly and its burbs and everyplace else.

Giuliani whips Hillary in every region outside Philly and whomps her 2-to-1 in central counties and the northwest.

Does this initial '08 snapshot paint a bleak picture for Democrats? Not according to the state party chairman.

"Clearly, it's very early," says party chief T. J. Rooney, "and at the end of the day I'd be shocked if either Giuliani or McCain is the Republican nominee."

Political scientist Thomas Brogan of Albright College in Reading doesn't disagree, especially with regard to Giuliani: "The support he gets from the GOP here in Pennsylvania may wane over time the more that's known about his positions and, frankly, his family life."

Those positions and "family life" include Rudy's support of gun control, abortion rights, gay rights and his own right to be married three times.

And McCain's already branded as something of a maverick, something not usually liked by the GOP.

But Republican State Committee director Luke Bernstein says Giuliani and McCain "appeal to a broader base" than the party, noting Giuliani's 9/11 performance and McCain's war-hero stature.

Plus, national GOP consultant John Brabender suggests '08 will be about "leadership qualities," and says traditional wedge issues won't be as important as in past contests. He also says that winning Pennsylvania takes "a different kind of Republican," that the state is changing and that its voters are now "a little more moderate."

I tend to agree. I wrote last year that the Bob Casey/Rick Santorum Senate contest would help define each party's '08 approach. That Casey won and Santorum lost suggests to me that the party dumping social-issue litmus tests and playing to the center is the party with an edge.

Republicans, at least at this point, seem headed that way; Democrats, not so much. If trends continue, this new poll might be more than just interesting. It might be prophetic. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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