Corbett crafting new image as election nears

Gov. Corbett meetings patients at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia on Wednesday, in an effort to promote his "Healthy Pennsylvania" initiative. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Gov. Corbett meetings patients at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia on Wednesday, in an effort to promote his "Healthy Pennsylvania" initiative. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Posted: October 28, 2013

HARRISBURG - As he spoke at a Montgomery County Republican dinner Thursday night, guests saw a relaxed Gov. Corbett dismissing charges that he had failed to get key legislation passed and sharing pictures of his grandson.

He revived his jobs theme and reminded the friendly audience that he had not only not raised state taxes but had cut business taxes.

And he stepped into new territory, suggesting proceeds from the sale of state liquor stores might help the disabled or environmental causes.

To top it off, Corbett was on hand to preside over the reuniting of two feuding Republican bosses - Bob Asher and Vahan Gureghian - whose quarrel started over which Republican would run in the 2004 attorney general's race, the race that Corbett went on to win.

The dinner, coming after an event to promote the expansion of the children's health insurance in Philadelphia, provided a glimpse of the increasingly public - and more Southeast Pennsylvania-focused - persona of this historically reticent politician as he faces basement polling numbers and a tough reelection campaign next year.

Corbett is holding more press events, making more appearances touting jobs in the southeast, shifting his stance on programs that help low-income people and sharing the podium at events with the GOP's popular elder statesman, former Gov. Tom Ridge.

Republican insiders have been pushing for a Corbett makeover to polish the rough edges, warm the cool image, and publicize his accomplishments ahead of his official reelection campaign announcement next month.

"I think you're going to see a lot of Gov. Corbett out and around the state," said Asher, a top fund-raiser and national Republican committeeman. "As he travels the state, he will make people aware of the true person, and that's the game plan."

The key question, as the large field of Democratic challengers begins to mount attacks, is whether the more engaged Corbett and his softened message bump up his poll numbers and draw in enough moderate Republicans and independents who populate the vote-rich southeast part of the state.

Some pollsters say record-low approval ratings one year out from the election should be cause for concern for the party.

"No incumbent in modern history has had this low job-performance [numbers] at this point seeking a second term," said Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall College pollster, whose August poll found only 38 percent of Republicans would support Corbett.

"If Corbett were to win reelection with those numbers it would make history," Madonna said.

Another recent poll, from Mercyhurst University in Erie, found that 40 percent of all voters asked would support an unnamed Democrat in the gubernatorial race, while 29 percent would vote for Corbett. An additional 16 percent said they didn't know whom they would support, and 10 percent responded "neither" or "someone else."

Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said he doesn't put much credence in early poll numbers, especially when the Democratic nominee won't be known for seven months and few Pennsylvanians are focused on 2014.

Gleason said Corbett is already reaping benefits from the change in the team responsible for getting his message out.

In July, Corbett replaced chief of staff Steve Aichele and press secretary Kevin Harley with Ridge veterans Leslie Gromis Baker and Lynn Lawson.

"We need to get out the story about him," said Gleason, pointing to a Corbett event at the Philadelphia shipyard on Thursday as an example.

"They launched a ship, and there are orders for 10 more ships. That's 1,000 jobs," Gleason said. "The governor had plenty to do with that, but I didn't know that. You can't assume people know anything."

Gleason said the party is gearing up to launch the 2014 ad campaign and will rely on three former GOP governors - Ridge, Mark Schweiker, and Dick Thornburgh - to help deliver the message of job creation and no new taxes.

At the same time, expect to see more "human" images of Corbett in the months ahead, mingling with crowds, showing shirtsleeves, and playing with his dogs, GOP insiders said.

Madonna said Corbett's decision to back Medicaid expansion and reevaluate the food-stamp asset test suggested he may be trying to appeal to a wider range of voters in the southeast.

"He needs to find a way to pivot to the middle," said Christopher Borick, pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

Gleason said he sees the shift in policy on some social programs as a natural evolving in Corbett's thinking.

"You could say his position is moderating," said Gleason. "But I think Tom is more comfortable in the job."

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Jessica Parks contributed to this article.

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