With a solid eight months to go until Election Day, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is having a tougher time winning another term than practically anyone expected.
Since the official announcement of former Pittsburgh Steelers star and Republican candidate Lynn Swann back in January – which came on the heels of nearly a year of unofficial campaigning by the African-American celebrity – poll after poll has shown a tight race between the Democrat and his GOP challenger. Barring any unforeseen slip-ups by Swann, who has never sought public office before, analysts expect the horse race to continue neck and neck all the way into the fall.
"This is somewhat unusually historic for an incumbent to face a challenge as serious as this one," said pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
Rendell, the wildly popular former mayor of Philadelphia, was elected governor in 2002 by a 400,000 vote margin against Republican Mike Fisher. But his popularity dwindled after a first year in office that saw him facing down the Republican-led General Assembly in a budget fight – and losing.
According to Madonna, whose own Keystone Poll last month put the Rendell/Swann match-up at a statistical dead heat – 45 percent for the current governor and 42 percent for the Republican – Swann's greatest strength is that he's an outsider to Pennsylvania politics.
"He can run against Harrisburg," Madonna explained, noting that all incumbents in the state Capitol are battling a real image problem after the legislature in 2005 passed a last-minute pay raise for itself – with Rendell's approval. "He can go in and talk about change."
His outsider status, though, could also plague Swann in the coming months. In a televised interview last month on ABC's "This Week," the anti-abortion candidate told host George Stephanopoulos that, if the Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirming a woman's right to an abortion, it would be tantamount to outlawing abortions nationwide. Stephanopoulos pointed out a reversal of Roe v. Wade would leave the abortion issue to the states.
Democrats seized on the exchange as evidence of Swann's lack of understanding of how government actually works.
"The fact that Lynn Swann is literally a blank slate is something that's going to unfold over time," said state Rep. T.J. Rooney (D-District 133), chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "The opportunities that Mr. Swann has been given to articulate positions have been utter failures."
Over at the Swann campaign, spokesperson Melissa Walters said that while her boss – who helped win four Super Bowls, and served as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 2002 to 2005 – was inexperienced in the world of electoral politics, he brings to the table something sorely missed in Harrisburg: leadership.
"Democrats are going to pounce on anything," she said. "Lynn certainly has a grasp on the issues."
Looking at Swann's relatively good showing in the polls early on in the race, Walters pointed the finger at Rendell, who despite pledging four years ago to enact property-tax reform has failed to make good on the promise. Swann, she went on, will complete the task.
"As an outsider, he can get it done," she said. "Pennsylvanians are ready for change. He's seen firsthand that people aren't satisfied with the status quo."
Rooney predicted a win for Rendell, who according to campaign-finance records had more than $12 million in the bank at the close of 2005, compared with Swann's $1 million.
Said Rooney: "I don't mean to oversimplify things, but this election is about turning out Democrats."