Conservatives hoping Corbett can turn the tide

GOP faithful, activists gather for governor’s speech at conference

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CAMP HILL, Pa. -- As they mingled outside panel discussions with names like "Obamacare: No Magic Beans" and "How Free Market Capitalism Raises All Boats," Pennsylvania conservatives described views of Gov. Tom Corbett that ranged along a spectrum of support.

Those gathered this weekend at the 25th annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference included Patricia Braden, chairwoman of the Lebanon County Republican Committee, who said that from balanced, end-of-June budgets to this fall's transportation funding package, the governor has done good work and has been unfairly criticized.

"He has done what he said he was going to do," she said. "It's really discouraging to me the press doesn't pick up that part of it."

Then there was Roger Howard, a candidate for the state House in Chester County, who described Mr. Corbett's claim that the transportation law did not raise taxes as "nonsense" and "a lawyerly prevarication" but who said conservatives still need to support the governor's re-election bid.

"When we look at Tom Corbett, we have to see this is the most conservative choice available," Mr. Howard said. "If we want to move forward, we need to support him."

Seven months from the November election, public polling has led national observers to name Mr. Corbett among the most vulnerable sitting governors. A January survey from Franklin & Marshall College found just 23 percent of Pennsylvania voters -- and 42 percent of Republicans -- believed the governor deserved another four years. In February, Quinnipiac University found 34 percent of voters -- and 61 percent of Republicans -- think Mr. Corbett should be re-elected.

Those numbers show the governor needs both to win back his supporters and to energize them, said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall poll.

"He can't win the November election with the defection of too many Republicans," Mr. Madonna said. "He's got to win the defectors back."

His campaign slogan "Promises Kept" aims to remind voters of conservative themes on topics like jobs and taxes, Mr. Madonna said.

Those topics were the governor's focus Friday night as he addressed a ballroom filled with the activists who earlier had heard from former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania's Republican senator.

"In my time now as governor we have made a clear break from the old policies that raised taxes, ran up debt and ran business out of town," Mr. Corbett said. "The other side want to bring it all back again. This is what we need to do: We need to tell them, with your help on November the fourth, not a chance."

His audience was mostly quiet but attentive. But at the end he received a solid round of applause.

His campaign manager, Mike Barley, said voters are returning to Mr. Corbett as they learn more about the Democratic alternatives: York businessman Tom Wolf, former state environmental secretary Katie McGinty and state Treasurer Rob McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, both of Montgomery County. Democrats will select their candidate in the primary on May 20.

"You're going to see more of those people come back," Mr. Barley said. "They're starting to see what the other side's offering."

Democrats in the race support enacting a severance tax on natural gas drilling, where Mr. Corbett and the Republican-controlled General Assembly instead put in place a per-well impact fee.

When conservatives do express disappointment with the governor, it is that he has not commanded more forceful action on issues from labor laws to the $50 billion in unfunded liability for the retirement plans serving public school teachers and state workers.

"While Gov. Corbett has certainly been outstanding on some conservative principles, in particular the fiscal management of the state, I know there are some who would like to see him have been more aggressive in pursuing other parts of the conservative agenda," said state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland.

Those parts include stopping the automatic deduction of union dues from worker paychecks, disbanding the state system of liquor sales and enacting more aggressive limitations on the requirement that government construction projects pay union-level wages, he said. But he said Mr. Corbett still has time to push for those changes.

"I'm disappointed with the Republican Party, considering that here in Pennsylvania you have a Republican governor, Republican Senate and Republican Legislature," said Ronald Robinson, who lives in Carlisle. "They control everything. To me, they need to do something about the pension situation and education."

As attendees circulated Friday, one name that came up was that of Bob Guzzardi, an activist whose spot as a gubernatorial candidate on the primary ballot is being challenged by petitioners represented by the state Republican Party's general counsel. Mr. Guzzardi, from the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, says he would spend only about $10,000 campaigning. He describes Mr. Corbett -- and much of the Republican General Assembly -- as a "big-government opportunist."

But the few conference attendees who spoke of Mr. Guzzardi to a reporter did not consider his candidacy a serious challenge.

Like Ms. Braden, the Lebanon County chairwoman, several attendees said they believe accomplishments by Mr. Corbett have not been communicated to voters.

"I think he's doing a good job in most every area except maybe PR," said Thomas Pyne, who works for the House Republicans in Harrisburg. "I really think he's doing more than people in Pennsylvania are aware."

Mr. Pyne mentioned Mr. Corbett's signing of legislation reducing the amount of debt the state can take on in an economic development program and his "strong stand against Obamacare." As attorney general, Mr. Corbett joined a multi-state lawsuit challenging the federal health law, and he is now negotiating with the Obama administration over an alternative to the expansion of Medicaid coverage envisioned under the federal law. Mr. Corbett instead wants to use federal money to provide private health insurance to the working poor.

Ms. Braden also defended the transportation bill, which eventually will raise more than $2 billion each year, in part by removing a cap on a tax paid by fuel distributors. She said that drivers use the highways and that unsafe bridges need fixing.

"How are you going to do it if you don't have the money?" she said. "I think conservatives understand the same thing I just tried to explain and will be behind the governor come November. We know what the alternative would be."

Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or Twitter @karen_langley.

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