Runyan pushes GOP in Democratic Phila.

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan mingles with the crowd at the Republican City Committee clambake at Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein, the German cultural hall on Academy Road.
U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan mingles with the crowd at the Republican City Committee clambake at Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein, the German cultural hall on Academy Road. (RON CORTES / Staff)
Posted: August 21, 2012

They came for the pulled pork and soft pretzels and plastic pitchers of Budweiser and Miller Lite. But the Republican faithful in this heavily Democratic city also came out to see a once-beloved Philadelphia athlete, former Eagle and current U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, who on Sunday night carried Mitt Romney's message to the GOP crowd and posed for photos with those who support his politics, and who once cheered his gritty play.

Runyan, the South Jersey congressman nearing the end of his first term in elected office, was the featured guest at the 28th annual Republican City Committee clambake, giving him a chance to stand before an adoring audience, stump for Romney, and trot out some of the arguments he will need in a tough reelection fight. The night provided a snapshot of Runyan, 38, two years into his political career and just a few weeks before his race goes into full gear.

"I don't think there's a person out here who thinks they're leaving a better country behind than the ones they found from their father, their grandfather," Runyan told the audience, seated at dozens of long, wooden picnic tables. "If you broke it, fix it. If it's dirty, clean it. It's one of those simple things your mother taught you as a child, and I think that's what we've gotten away from in Washington."

With a string band playing at Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein, the German cultural hall on Academy Road, an Elvis impersonator in a too-snug blue jumpsuit singing, and the thick funk of cigars in the air, Runyan seemed at ease. There was little in the way of hard politics, and though Runyan criticized President Obama for a lack of leadership, he made no mention of his own race or his Democratic opponent, Shelley Adler.

With no Philadelphia Republicans elected on the federal level, the Romney camp turned to Runyan, whose Eagles resumé still carries weight in this football-crazed city.

"He's probably better than any other congressman you could send to a Philadelphia event," said Vito Canuso, chairman of the Republican Philadelphia City Committee.

Runyan, in pleated tan slacks and a Nike polo shirt, was continually stopped for pictures, even while in mid-interview with a reporter. He poked fun at the sports loyalty of Tom Smith, the Western Pennsylvanian running for U.S. Senate who cheers the Steelers and who also spoke Sunday. "Sorry to hear you have such a large personality flaw," Runyan said.

The setting was friendly, but Runyan faces a tougher road ahead. Democrats, nationally, have made him a top target and have already launched several attacks.

Adler, a former Cherry Hill councilwoman, is the widow of the late U.S. Rep. John Adler, whom Runyan defeated in 2010. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed her challenge as one of its top races, although the district grew much more Republican when New Jersey officials redrew their legislative map this year.

House leaders, including Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, have invested campaign cash in the race. Though Runyan offered few specifics when he ran as a rookie challenger in 2010, this time, Democrats have two years of votes to review and use as they see fit.

"I wish they would use them legitimately and not stretch the truth on them," Runyan said in an interview. "There's no perfect piece of legislation out there, there's always a give and take, and it's unfortunate that people try to exploit stuff like that and until they get there and figure that out, sometimes they have a hard time figuring that out."

Democrats have hammered him for votes supporting the budgets proposed by GOP vice presidential pick Paul Ryan, particularly for the impact the cost-cutting plans would have on Medicare, which nonpartisan analysts say would eventually increase costs for the elderly.

Runyan admitted "there is concern" about how the plan would play in the heat of an election but defended the vote, stressing that the changes to Medicare would not affect anyone 55 or older and would, in his view, preserve the program for the future as enrollment and costs soar.

"There's a serious discussion we have to have with our younger generations about how we can preserve Medicare and make it sustainable for the long haul," Runyan said, turning to the Republican counterpunch that Obama took $716 billion out of the program to help fund his health-care overhaul.

Democrats have pointed out that the saving comes from slowing future Medicare spending, not cutting current spending, would largely affect providers, not beneficiaries, and has been credited with extending the solvency of Medicare's hospital trust fund by eight years.

The Ryan budget, which Runyan voted for, "would dismantle Medicare," Adler spokesman Michael Muller wrote in an e-mail.

"Congressman Runyan has time and again sided with party leaders against the interests of middle-class families and seniors," Muller said.

Around Runyan at the Sunday event, there was no such confrontation. Instead, the air was filled with lighthearted talk on a summer evening that felt far removed from the hard campaigning to come.


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

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