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By Richard S. Dunham On one level, the May 21 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania is a parochial contest between two career pols, the former mayor of Philadelphia and the scion of a well-known political dynasty in the Keystone State, the Casey family. But the showdown between Ed Rendell and Bob Casey Jr. has a much deeper significance that goes to the heart of the party's ability to build a winning coalition for future Presidential races.
The question that will be answered by Democratic voters is simple: Can a business-friendly pragmatist with appeal to independent and GOP voters survive a primary election dominated by various factions of quintessentially Old Democrats? Americans are likely to be pondering the same question as Democrats struggle to pick a White House nominee in 2004 and, if that candidate fails, again in 2008.
MAN AND MACHINE. As a Pennsylvania native with a long view of the state's political history, I find it somehow fitting that Rendell should be the person to test the New Democrat vs. Old Democrat thesis. I first met him in 1977, when I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and he was a young lawyer trying to oust an incumbent Philadelphia district attorney. At the time, Rendell was running as a liberal reformer against a candidate backed by the city's powerful Democratic machine and its politically active labor unions.
He seemed like a smart guy, but one destined to be chewed up by the machine. I was wrong. Rendell, a native New Yorker, scored the most stunning upset in modern Philadelphia political history (and that's saying something). His victory eventually led him to the mayor's job. As Philly's Hizzoner, he teamed up with the business community to help turn around the decrepit downtown and attract suburbanites back to the big city.
Now, Rendell faces similar obstacles in his second race for governor. (He was defeated by the father of his current opponent, Robert P. Casey, in 1986.) Once again, the state's Democratic organization is against him, and the AFL-CIO is again waging war on the guy who played hardball with municipal unions during his eight years as mayor. It may be called the City of Brotherly Love, but in voters' minds, Rendell represents a city that suburban and rural Pennsylvanians love to hate. Yet his biggest problem may be that Old/New schism splitting the Democratic Party.
HOSTILE TERRITORY. Rendell has evolved into the very model of a New Democrat -- an economic moderate/social liberal. And Pennsylvania has traditionally been among the nation's most inhospitable states for such Democrats.
The overwhelming majority of its Democratic voters are economic liberals in the FDR, big-government-is-great mold. They're divided, almost evenly, into two blocs: social liberals (mostly minorities and big-city white liberals) and pro-life, pro-gun social conservatives (mostly Catholic voters of European origin from Ireland to Ukraine -- think of the Academy Award-winning movie from the 1970s, The Deerhunter). Pennsylvania has some New Democrats in its suburbs and college towns, but they're distinctly in the minority.
So why is Rendell leading Casey in most polls? Good question. In its May 12 endorsement of Rendell, the Philadelphia Inquirer described Pennsylvania as the "Mississippi of the Northeast." That's not fair -- to Mississippi. Unlike the Southern state, Pennsylvania seems incapable of coming to grips with its structural economic problems, horrendous schools, antiquated tax system, and aging population (the second oldest in the nation).
Like the Old South demagogues of the past, Pennsylvania pols spend lots of time blaming somebody else for their problems. Rendell, who works so well with Republicans that he wooed the 2000 GOP Convention to Philly, would certainly be a jolt to the political system. But can he get past the Democratic primary?
CROSSOVER APPEAL. Casey, who's the state's auditor general, is the prototypical economic liberal/social conservative. And on paper, Rendell faces an uphill battle. His challenge is to replicate the feat of Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- the only self-styled New Democrats to win statewide in Pennsylvania in a Presidential contest, not once, but twice. To do that, he'll have to hold the Old Democratic social liberals in the cities while making inroads in the suburbs.
Polls show he's doing just that. The Keystone Poll indicates that Rendell is actually running better in the Philadelphia suburbs than in the city itself. And tens of thousands of suburban "Rendell Republicans" changed their party registration so they could vote for him in the Democratic primary.
If Rendell manages to assemble a strong city-suburban coalition, it could be a formula for other New Democrats to build upon nationally. Step one for Rendell is to prove that a business-friendly Democrat can win his party's nomination in Old Democratic territory. If he succeeds in November, this former firebrand turned raging moderate may well have created a model worth copying as the party tries to wrest the White House from the Republicans in 2004. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online