Former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton dropped out of the governor's race yesterday, all but assuring Lynn Swann of the Republican nomination to face incumbent Democrat Ed Rendell.
Mr. Swann, the broadcaster and former Steelers receiver, is a prohibitive favorite against the one opponent he still faces in the GOP primary, James Panyard, a former executive with the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association.
On a day when Mr. Swann was basking in the reflected glory of a Super Bowl win by his former team, Mr. Scranton's announcement shifted attention from the May primary to how strong a challenge the former all-pro would pose to Mr. Rendell in November.
After two years of campaigning across the state, Mr. Scranton announced his withdrawal in a statement released by his campaign headquarters early in the evening. It came less than five days before he would have been rebuffed by his party's hierarchy, the Republican State Committee, in a request for an open primary.
After a series of victories for Mr. Swann in regional straw polls of state committee members, it was clear that he was about to capture the party's endorsement in a vote this weekend.
"I have determined that my chances of success are minimal in mounting a grass-roots campaign effort. Our campaign is strong, but not enough to defeat a candidate who has received the near unanimous backing of state and national party leaders," Mr. Scranton said in his statement.
While Mr. Swann was taking in the Downtown victory parade for the Steelers -- an appearance that at one point was met by chants of "governor, governor'' -- Mr. Scranton huddled with advisers in Harrisburg, then telephoned key supporters around the state to say he was leaving the race.
Bob Glancy, a Scranton supporter and chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Party, said that in their conversation, as in his public statement, Mr. Scranton acknowledged that Mr. Swann's momentum, soon to be enhanced with a state committee endorsement, would make a primary challenge an uphill slog.
"He felt that it was going to take a major investment and the funding was going to dry up and be very difficult,'' Mr. Glancy said.
Mike DeVanney, who as deputy campaign manager was a senior strategist on a campaign that went through two managers in its abbreviated existence, said Mr. Scranton reviewed his tactical situation over the weekend.
"We weighed a lot of options, but it became clear that it would be far too difficult -- that the odds were not strong for victory,'' he said.
"The mood was absolute disappointment,'' Mr. DeVanney said of the campaign staff's reaction. "To many of us the disappointment was that this was a lost opportunity for the commonwealth."
Mr. DeVanney said that Mr. Scranton didn't plan to endorse Mr. Swann or any other candidate until after the primary.
"Consistent with his support for an open primary, he will wait for the decision of the voters,'' he said.
Mr. Swann issued a brief statement: "Bill Scranton made a difficult decision today. I applaud him for his leadership, both in the past as lieutenant governor and today as someone with an interest in seeing the Republican Party unified as we move towards our ultimate goal -- defeating Ed Rendell."
Mr. Scranton's decision is worth millions to the Swann campaign. Dollars can be husbanded for a general election against an incumbent who raised some $40 million in his last campaign. Both Mr. Swann and Mr. Scranton entered the year with campaign contributions just over $1 million, far behind a Rendell treasury of more than $12 million.
One conceivable disadvantage is that the GOP winner will be deprived of months of publicity that would have been conferred by a high-profile primary battle.
After months as an unofficial candidate, Mr. Swann received a burst of statewide and national publicity with his official entry into the race just after his last ABC broadcasting assignment, at the Sugar Bowl.
The momentum continued with a series of regional caucus victories, then with the former Super Bowl MVP's round of appearances in Detroit and yesterday in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Scranton's withdrawal ended, at least for the time being, an attempt to revive a political career that he had abandoned for nearly two decades. After serving as former Gov. Dick Thornburgh's lieutenant governor for two terms, he was defeated in a hard-fought governor's race in 1986 by the late Robert P. Casey.
With that, he turned from politics to a series of positions in private business. In the months before the 2004 presidential election, the son of a former governor and scion of a family that gave its name to the city of Scranton surprised many state Republicans with his return to the circuit of county dinners and retail political appearances he had left behind for so many years.
He embraced the anti-Harrisburg agitation that had sprung up over the summer with the Legislature's passage of a since-rescinded pay raise. Mr. Scranton criticized Mr. Swann for not offering more specifics on issues, but his own campaign never got to the point of proposing a fully fleshed-out platform.
In campaign appearances he stuck to general calls for lower taxes and broad-brush criticisms of the Rendell administration. Like Mr. Swann, he pledged to reform the property tax system without specifying how he would accomplish a goal that had frustrated Pennsylvania lawmakers for generations.
Mr. Scranton's call for an open primary came only after it became clear that Mr. Swann had charged to the lead in the race for the party endorsement. His effort to compete with the Swann surge was hobbled when his campaign manager, James Seif, described Mr. Swann as "the rich white guy in this race," in an appearance on public television. Mr. Scranton tried to put the incident behind him by quickly firing his old associate, but the incident had already done its political damage.
Mr. DeVanney said that while his former candidate's political goals were now uncertain, he had no plans to again retreat from public life. In his statement, Mr. Scranton spoke of the goal of reforming the Republican Party.
"I look forward to being an active participant in this great cause," he said.
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.