Primarily, the race for governor has just changed

Posted: February 25, 2014

WELCOME to the new Democratic race for governor.

On the off chance that you haven't been riveted, here's why it's new:

It just got more crowded. And two W's changed it.

Let's take a look.

Last week, a former Pittsburgh city councilman, a former two-time Pittsburgh mayoral candidate, a former state senator, a former two-time state auditor general, a former lieutenant-governor candidate and a former candidate for governor all jumped in.

But don't be confused.

This is Pennsylvania, home of recurrent candidacies. All these formers are the same person, the first W: Pittsburgh's Jack Wagner.

To say that Jack's been around the block is like saying the Earth's been around the sun.

Yet here he is again, another revolution, as in go-around, not overthrow of the social order - although his candidacy, even at this stage, could overthrow the political order.

Why?

Almost no one can be in elective politics, even with mixed results, for 33 years without building a base and name ID.

Most importantly, Wagner's the sole western candidate in a state where western voters are known for regional fidelity, in a campaign with seven other candidates bunched in southeastern and central counties.

On the other hand, Wagner won't have the money of at least four of the seven: Tom Wolf, Rob McCord, Allyson Schwartz and Katie McGinty.

And he must find resources - cash, campaign structure, labor support, endorsements - after other candidates already secured the same.

Wagner freely concedes these points.

"I know I'm later than every other candidate and there's no way I can meet the financial levels of several of the candidates," he tells me.

But he also says, "I still feel I'm a legitimate candidate."

On paper, he's a near-perfect Pa. candidate: a moderate Democrat who showed independence as auditor general taking on Gov. Ed Rendell over borrowing; a decorated Vietnam War vet; pro-labor, pro-gun, pro-life; knowledgeable on issues; respected as honest and above reproach.

And remember, if the May 20 primary ballot has eight candidates, or six, or five, one could win with, say, 24 percent (or less) of the vote.

The 2010 Democratic primary for governor had four candidates. Wagner finished second to Pittsburgh's Dan Onorato, garnering 24 percent of the vote.

The other candidates' campaigns are saying that Wagner's entry changes nothing. Or that it hurts other candidates more than theirs, and so on.

Truth is, Wagner - even if somnambulant - presents at least a pothole in the road of all other campaigns. He alters the path to numbers needed to win by taking some (presumably significant) number of western votes out of everybody else's calculus.

Schwartz likely suffers least, because she's best-known.

But even that could change as the second W, Tom Wolf, steps up.

New polling's due this week. It's coming after the mostly self-financed Wolf has been on TV all alone for three weeks during bad weather when home TV audiences likely were larger than normal.

If new polling (which started too late to include Wagner) doesn't show Wolf at or near the top of the field, then money no longer matters in politics. And what are the odds of that?

In evident anticipation of a Wolf surge, Republicans now are hitting Wolf for his past support of tax increases as state revenue secretary under Rendell.

And fellow Democrat McCord is swiping at Wolf's money, saying last week that he's concerned the primary's becoming an "auction."

Bottom line?

Wagner may well be going to the well one too many times.

Wolf may well wilt under increased scrutiny and targeted fire to come.

But for now, two W's just changed the game.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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