Echoes of '08 in Kane vs. Murphy

Posted: April 13, 2012

Calling her a woman with a "steel spine and a caring heart," former President Bill Clinton rallied a crowd Thursday in Willow Grove in support of Kathleen Kane's bid to become the Democratic nominee for attorney general.

Three days earlier, President Obama's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, said of her rival, Patrick Murphy: "I don't think Barack Obama has had a better friend in politics."

As the two Democrats vying to become the state's top prosecutor enter the final stretch before April 24's primary, both are drawing high-wattage backing and finding their past allegiances in another hotly contested party fight four years ago now stand to help or hurt them.

Kane, a former Lackawanna prosecutor, served as a volunteer coordinator in Northeastern Pennsylvania for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential primary run. Murphy, a former Bucks County congressman, was one of the first national legislators to endorse Obama's candidacy that year.

"The connections there are all in the past," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, who has watched the recent developments in the attorney general race. "It just goes to show, not all politics is local. All politics are personal."

Officially, Democrats chose not to back one candidate over the other at their convention in State College in January, leaving it up to primary voters to decide at the polls. The winner of that contest will face Republican David Freed, Cumberland County's district attorney, who is running unopposed.

But many party officials expressed privately that they expected Murphy to breeze through to the general election, thanks to an early start on the campaign trail and a heavily stocked war chest.

Bill Clinton's endorsement of Kane late last month gave the political newcomer's campaign a needed boost and sent tongues wagging throughout her party. In subsequent days, Clinton lent his voice to a series of robocalls lauding her credentials and agreed to appear with her Thursday at Upper Moreland High School in Montgomery County.

Hundreds of supporters lined up three hours early for a chance to see Clinton, who remains one of the Democratic Party's most popular national figures more than a decade after he left the Oval Office.

When it came time to speak on Kane's behalf, he rattled through a litany of her professional accomplishments, emphasizing her work in the courtroom.

"She supported my wife in the campaign, and I'm grateful," he said. "But this is a simple question: Who will do more for the people of Pennsylvania in this job? The answer is easy: It's Kathleen Kane."

But while few would say so openly, several local Democratic officials questioned the propriety of the former president's inserting himself into a primary fight for statewide office, when even state officials chose not to.

As if to underscore that point, Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen and Democratic County Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards did not attend Thursday's rally. They said they had already pledged their support to Murphy.

"You remember those who stuck by you," said Bucks County Commissioner Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, introducing Kane to the cheering crowd.

And over the last four years, Clinton has not shied away from embracing that maxim. In races ranging from Senate seats to statewide offices, he has wielded his endorsement as a tool to favor those who supported his family politically and slight those who didn't.

As in much of the nation, the 2008 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama split Pennsylvania Democrats. Eventually, Clinton carried the state. But Obama won Philadelphia, Chester, and Delaware Counties - thanks in part to the support of local elected officials like Murphy, who as a veteran and first-term congressman latched on to Obama's pledge to end the war in Iraq.

"Patrick was with us early, and that was really meaningful for us," said Axelrod, appearing at a Murphy campaign event Monday at the law offices of Berger & Montague in Philadelphia. "But also in the Congress, he was a go-to guy for us, as young and as junior as he was in terms of seniority there."

Kane, who hails from outside Scranton, helped organize Hillary Clinton's efforts in the northeast. But as much as Bill Clinton's decision to support her this year has been spun by some as a nod to a woman who helped his wife's campaign, others view it as a snub of Murphy.

So what does all this attention from national Democratic figures mean for Kane and Murphy anyway? In this year's campaign, quite a lot.

Overshadowed by the machinations of a Republican GOP primary, the pair have struggled to attract attention to their race. Both hope drawing in a big political fish like Clinton or Axelrod will fix their names in the minds of primary voters.


Contact Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jeremyrroebuck.

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