Seizing on an issue that could galvanize their base, some of the state's top Democrats on Friday accused Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett of encouraging his followers to suppress voter turnout in Philadelphia.
The Democrats pointed to remarks Corbett made Thursday to a Republican audience in Delaware County. Noting that Gov. Rendell was calling for a 50 percent turnout in Philadelphia, Corbett said, "We want to make sure they don't get 50 percent. Keep that down."
The issue exploded after campaign aides to Corbett's opponent, Dan Onorato, posted video of the remarks on YouTube. Rendell called the comments "almost a federal crime" and Mayor Nutter led seething Democrats at a City Hall news conference railing against them.
Corbett, the state's attorney general, swiftly rejected any suggestion that he wanted to suppress voting, saying Democrats quoted him "way out of context" in a desperate attempt to gain ground.
"We did not try to suppress anything. We're not trying to suppress anything," he said.
The exchange reflected the intensity both sides carried into the campaign's final weekend, when the focus begins to shift toward getting the candidates' supporters to actually cast ballots.
Some saw the uproar as late-season gamesmanship. Trailing in polls and money, Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, needs a strong turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia to have any hope of a win.
"This is a ploy," said Randall Miller, a professor at St. Joseph's University who follows regional politics and said there was little evidence of past voter suppression here. "Without Philadelphia, [Onorato's race] is over, and everybody knows it."
Miller pointed to the heavy hitters - President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and former President Bill Clinton - who have stumped in the city for Onorato or are scheduled to do so before Tuesday's election.
Corbett's remarks came during a Delaware County GOP luncheon Thursday at the Drexelbrook banquet hall in Drexel Hill.
The nominee referred to a Rendell remark - that U.S. Rep. Bob Brady should quit as city Democratic chairman if he couldn't get half of Philadelphia's Democrats to vote. Corbett said Brady should prepare his resignation letter.
"I don't think he's going to get 50 percent, but we want to make sure they don't get 50 percent. Keep that down," Corbett said, making a pressing-down motion with his hand. The speech was videotaped and posted online by the Delaware County Daily Times.
On Friday, Corbett's campaign pointed out the same video showed him talking about winning voters of all stripes.
"We want to get 100 percent all across the state," he said on the tape. "Because I don't get elected if we only have Republicans. We need to have Democrats, we need to have independents."
Still, reporters peppered Corbett about the speech at a GOP rally Friday at Lancaster Airport.
"What I was talking about was keeping it within the margins, keeping it that we can win," he said, repeatedly cutting the questions short. "There's no way my supporters or anyone's supporters can tell anybody, 'Don't go out to vote.' It doesn't happen."
Onorato, speaking in North Philadelphia after getting the endorsement of the 400-member Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, called Corbett's remarks the latest in a string of "insensitive" comments.
City Democrats took an even stronger stance. Flanked by 11 other elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and District Attorney Seth Williams, the mayor called Corbett's comments "unconscionable."
"It should not be a topic of conversation that any candidate or elected official would advocate to keep the vote down," Nutter said.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) rejected the notion that Democrats were trying to spin Corbett's remarks.
"No spin is necessary," Williams said. "It was an unvarnished attempt to try to take away people's right to vote."
Williams said he saw no evidence of a crime, but used the opportunity to urge voters to report any suspicious activity on Election Day.
Stephen Medvic, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College who studies campaigns, said Corbett had little incentive as the front-runner in the polls to tamper with turnout. He said it was more likely the remark was "an extraordinarily clumsy way to say whatever he meant."
Still, Medvic said, voter suppression remains a real issue with a sordid history, particularly for African American voters. He said he likes to show his students a flier found in one mostly black Baltimore district a few years ago that listed the wrong election date and said prospective voters with outstanding parking tickets would be turned away.
"So, being on the lookout for [suppression], I don't blame anybody for doing that," Medvic said. "And when you hear something that sounds fishy, I don't blame them for at least raising eyebrows, if not raising alarm bells."
To view Tom Corbett's speech go to http://go.philly.com/