Onorato making race for governor official


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Launching his campaign for governor tomorrow, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato will join a crowded race of at least five Democrats with varying claims to the regional and ideological bases of the party.

Mr. Onorato starts out with significant assets in the race: name recognition in one of the state's Democratic strongholds, demonstrated fund-raising prowess and the ability to portray himself as an executive who presided over a regional economy rebounding from long-term distress. But among his Democratic rivals are candidates who will compete with him for each of those potential strengths.

The other announced or likely candidates for the Democratic nomination are Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, retired businessman Tom Knox of Philadelphia and state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

Mr. Onorato enters the race after a public career that has taken him through Pittsburgh City Council, the county controller's office and now into his second term as county executive.

Despite running battles over property assessments and drink and rental car taxes, he's had a relatively smooth tenure in that job. So strong was his local position that he attracted no challengers for re-election.

Mr. Wagner will compete with Mr. Onorato for support in their political back yard. Mr. Wagner is a former City Council colleague who defeated him in a 1994 state Senate race. Mr. Wagner won re-election last year with an impressive landslide, a margin that surpassed even President Barack Obama's surprisingly strong showing in the state.

Through Harrisburg's protracted budget battle, the Beechview Democrat has sought to position himself as a critic of both the Legislature and the Rendell administration, two institutions whose poll numbers have been battered by the fiscal deadlock.

By tomorrow, Mr. Wagner will be the only presumed candidate yet to make an official announcement, but has said repeatedly that he intends to enter the race. Mr. Wagner shares not just a geographical base with Mr. Onorato, but positions on social issues on the conservative side of the Democratic spectrum. Both are pro-life and generally oppose tighter restrictions on firearms.

The state's Democratic Party has managed to accommodate disparate views on those hot-button issues. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey holds views similar to the two westerners on the social issues while Gov. Ed Rendell is both pro-choice and an advocate of such gun control measures as purchase limits.

The two contenders from the Philadelphia region are on the liberal side of gun and abortion issues, meaning they, like the Pittsburgh Democrats, overlap both geographically and ideologically.

Mr. Doherty also describes himself as pro-choice. He supports some gun control measures including limits on sales and reporting requirements for lost and stolen guns.

In an election that figures to take place amid a still-limping economy, however, it is unclear how much weight the social issues will carry compared to the competing promises of better public management that all of the candidates will press.

But in announcing his candidacy, Mr. Hoeffel, the former state legislator and congressman, said he was entering the race in part because he was concerned that his party was drifting to the right.

"I'd like to see a socially liberal and fiscally prudent approach," he said.

Mr. Hoeffel is technically the minority member of Montgomery County's board of commissioners. But he and Jim Matthews, a Republican commissioner who was Lynn Swann's running mate in the 2006 gubernatorial race, have formed an alliance representing the de facto majority in the populous county bordering Philadelphia.

With neighboring Bucks, Delaware and Chester counties, this suburban ring accounts for the largest bloc of Democratic votes in the state, more than in either of the traditional urban strongholds of Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

Mr. Hoeffel and Mr. Wagner are the only two candidates who have run statewide. Mr. Hoeffel lost to Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 U.S. Senate race.

He also attempted to launch a bid for lieutenant governor in 2006, but the effort was short-circuited when Mr. Rendell unambiguously endorsed his 2002 running mate, the late Catherine Baker Knoll, the day after Mr. Hoeffel announced. He dropped out almost immediately.

Mr. Knox, the only candidate who is not a public official, brings a business background to the race that he hopes to contrast with those of the public officials -- or, as he will brand them, "career politicians" he is opposing.

His background has brought him a considerable asset -- money, and lots of it. He was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007 and spent more than $11 million in losing the Democratic primary to Mayor Michael Nutter.

For weeks, Mr. Knox actually led the polling of a crowded mayoral field before Mr. Nutter surged to the lead. Mr. Knox has hinted that he may spend even more of his own cash in his bid for Harrisburg.

Over the last two years, Mr. Onorato has often been regarded as an early front-runner, in part because of the statewide fundraising base he has established. But the potential of that advantage could be overwhelmed by a free-spending, largely self-funded Knox effort.

Mr. Doherty, after eight years as the mayor of Scranton, will compete with Mr. Onorato in portraying himself as a catalyst for urban revival.

Chosen as the American equivalent of Slough, the gray, depressed setting of the original British version of the television show "The Office," Scranton has experienced something of a turnaround. National publications including The Wall Street Journal and Business Week have hailed its livability and investment upturn.

From the standpoint of population, Mr. Doherty starts from the smallest base of any of the Democrats. But he's quick to point out that the northeastern city has already produced two governors, Bill Scranton and Bob Casey Sr.

And if the Scranton mayor is relatively unknown statewide, he has lots of company. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week suggested that, so far, none of the Democratic contenders represents much of a blip on the political radar.

Sixty-one percent of the Democratic voters surveyed didn't know enough about Mr. Wagner to express an opinion on him; 72 percent couldn't offer an opinion on Mr. Onorato; 85 percent said the same of Mr. Knox; 82 percent of Mr. Doherty; and 74 percent of Mr. Hoeffel.

Mr. Hoeffel has described an internal poll that shows him with relatively strong regional name recognition in the crucial southeastern corner of the state and a small lead in the overall Democratic field.

The Quinnipiac survey had Mr. Onorato in the lead among the Democrats, but with just 14 percent of the vote. He was followed by Mr. Hoeffel at 12 percent; Mr. Wagner, 11 percent; Mr. Doherty, 8 percent; and Mr. Knox, 5 percent. Mr. Onorato's margin was less than the survey's margin of error. Overall, the findings said more about the fluid and unformed state of the race than any meaningful ranking of the candidates.

At this point, each of the Democratic candidates appears to have a plausible chance of winning the nomination. Whether all of them will remain in the race will be clearer by the end of this year when their fundraising results suggest which of them will have the resources to raise their uniformly low profiles.

That challenge is likely to be compounded by the fact that they will be competing for public attention and media coverage not just with one another, but with two other potentially spirited races -- the Republican nomination fight for governor between Attorney General Tom Corbett and Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Chester, and the nationally prominent Democratic Senate primary battle between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware County.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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