POTTSTOWN, Pa. -- The lanky figure in the dark suit moved briskly from wheelchair to wheelchair, smiling as he passed out brochures to the nursing home residents who'd just heard his pitch for the GOP ticket for county commissioner.
Bruce Castor's audience, several of them in their 90s, have lived long lives, but not long enough to remember a time when Republicans did not control the Montgomery County Courthouse. For 140 years, the GOP has held an unbroken majority on the three-member board.
Democrats claim that's about to change.
If their well-funded challenge succeeds Tuesday, it would make local history, but more broadly, it could affirm a voting trend that could transform Pennsylvania from a classic swing state in state and national elections to one with a deepening shade of blue.
Montgomery is the largest of the four "collar" counties surrounding Philadelphia. For the half century following the rise of Philadelphia's Democratic machine, the four -- Delaware, Chester and Bucks in addition to Montgomery -- were a crucial counterweight to the city's Democratic strength.
Combined with the enduring GOP power in the center of the state and the party's gains in the west, the collar counties traditionally allowed Republicans to counter the Democrats' urban strength in the east and west.
That balance allowed the parties to battle to rough parity. The governor's office has been a political pendulum for half a century, moving regularly back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans. But the regional foundations of that balance began to shift in the 1990s.
In even-numbered years -- when state and federal offices were up for grabs -- the Philadelphia suburbs headed in the Democratic direction. Former President Bill Clinton carried that corner of the state twice. His vice-president, Al Gore, won three of the four suburban counties in 2000. Sen. John F. Kerry did the same in 2004.
Gov. Ed Rendell carried them by huge margins in winning his two terms. But in the odd-numbered years of municipal and county elections, Republicans have largely maintained their winning ways despite creeping Democratic registration gains.
That pattern will be tested Tuesday, not just in Montgomery County, but also in Bucks and Chester counties, where the commissioners races are equally competitive.
Colorful cast of characters
The big attraction, however, is Montgomery County, not just because it is the largest of the four and because the campaign has been the most hard-fought, but also because of its colorful cast of political characters and history of internecine combat among Republicans.
"In 2008, Pennsylvania is going to be one of the few big states in play in the presidential race,'' Mr. Castor said as he paused between campaign events last week. "Montgomery County is going to be crucial to the state House races and to Pennsylvania's chances of bringing the Republican presidential candidate across the finish line."
Sitting in the county party's cluttered offices, across the street from the Norristown courthouse, incumbent Democratic Commissioner Ruth Damsker said, "We're going to turn Montgomery truly blue.''
It's a measure of the prominence of the field that Ms. Damsker, first elected in 2000, is the only one of the four candidates who has not run for statewide office. Her running mate, Joseph Hoeffel, is a former county commissioner; former congressman; unsuccessful challenger in 2004, for the Senate seat held by Sen. Arlen Specter; and briefly, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006 before Mr. Rendell pulled the rug out from under him with a statement of support for Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll.
Incumbent Republican Commissioner Jim Matthews, Mr. Castor's partner in the race in which the top three vote-getters will take office, was Lynn Swann's running mate as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006.
Mr. Castor is Montgomery County's district attorney, first elected to office in 1999, and returned in a landslide in 2003. In 2004, he sought the Republican nomination for state attorney general but lost in a bitter contest against Tom Corbett, the eventual winner.
The specter of that race hangs over the current contest. In the maneuvering before the state primary, Robert Asher, the state's Republican national committeeman and a longtime power in county politics, endorsed Mr. Corbett.
Mr. Castor denounced both of them, repeatedly pointing out that Mr. Asher was a felon who had served time in federal prison for his role, while state GOP chairman, in the bribery scandal of the mid-1980s that also prompted the notorious televised suicide of former state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer.
The Castor-Asher feud highlights the deep fissures within the county GOP. "After Tuesday, they'll go back to fighting over who's going to be county chairman,'' said Stephen O'Toole, a Republican campaign aide.
"Egos are bruised whenever you have intra-party tensions,'' Mr. Castor said. But he insisted that the friction hasn't ruptured his relationship with Mr. Matthews, whose election is essential to Mr. Castor's hope of preserving a GOP majority. A chink in that united facade appeared when a political blog published an e-mail from Mr. Castor, bemoaning the fact that Mr. Matthews was accepting contributions from Mr. Castor's bete noire, Mr. Asher. For his part, Mr. Matthews, the brother of commentator Chris Matthews of CNBC's "Hardball," was quoted in a local paper as observing that Mr. Castor's ego "could float the Titanic.''
The Democratic team is happy to reap the benefit of the local estrangement. But they have devoted more energy to trying to capitalize on voters' sour attitudes toward the GOP administration in the White House. In mailings and television advertisements, they have focused on Mr. Matthews, constantly reminding the county of his past support for the Bush-Cheney administration.
Mr. Castor says that the GOP's internal polling suggests that voters are not buying the effort to nationalize the election. But Mr. Hoeffel noted with amusement that when President Bush came to Bryn Mawr last Monday for a GOP fund-raiser, neither member of the Republican ticket found time to appear.
"I understand the need to take advantage of the president, but it's just bad timing for me," Mr. Matthews told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Maybe it would have been better if he was in Delaware or Chester."
Some Republicans in those counties are not going out of their way to highlight the president either. Politicians and analysts familiar with the region don't see much threat of a Democratic takeover of Delaware County, despite its lengthening record of support for state and national Democrats. But several said that the Democrats do have at least a chance in Bucks and Chester counties.
Democrats haven't held the commissioners' majority in Bucks since the 1980s. Chester is traditionally the most reliable of the collar counties for the Republicans, but it was the site of a stunning Democratic upset in a state Senate special election in 2006. The loser of that contest, Commissioner Carol Aichele is running with fellow Republican Terrence Farrell against a challenge from Democrats Bill Scott and Kathi Cozzone.
In Bucks County, Democrats Steve Santarsiero and Diane Marseglia have raised nearly $500,000, just behind the fund-raising total of incumbent Republicans Jim Cawley and Charley Martin in another competitive contest.
The candidates in Montgomery County will spend twice that in what is certain to be the most expensive general election in the county's history. By some indicators its should be a good year for incumbents there. Unemployment is low. Growth has been so consistent that the commissioners have been able to cut tax rates while still seeing steady growth in revenue.
The GOP majority announced on Monday that they would cut taxes again for next budget year. Ms. Damsker learned about the planned reduction from the news media and complained last week she still hadn't been informed of the numbers behind the new budget.
The Democrats have also faced claims from their opponents that they would initiate a countywide property tax reassessment. The charge is based on comments Ms. Damsker made at a community meeting, in which she appeared to endorse at least the concept of a reassessment.
"A blatant lie," Mr. Hoeffel said of the charge. "We have not said we will reassess. We will not reassess."
Despite the recent Democratic gains, Republicans still hold a registration plurality in the county. And they are counting on their party's tradition of showing up at the polls in higher percentages than Democrats, particularly in municipal elections without a high-profile race at the top of the ticket.
Mr. Castor said his internal polls suggest they are poised to win, despite the heavy attacks on Mr. Matthews. But he doesn't minimize the challenge, noting that in 2006, "for the first time in history," the aggregate vote for Democratic state House candidates in the county topped the Republican total.
"This could be a transformative election," said Terry Madonna, a pollster and analyst of state politics at Franklin and Marshall College. "This is a genuine test of whether the suburbs are going to trend Democratic. They don't have the kind of patronage they once did, but in actual and symbolic terms they are seats of power."
In an essay earlier this year, Mr. Madonna wrote: "The loss of the suburbs by the Republican Party would likely mean that Pennsylvania's role as a critical swing state would end abruptly."
Referring to the state's presidential performance, he said last week. "This isn't just about what happens there; this is the kind of shift that could make us a little bit more like New Jersey and a little less like Ohio.''
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.