HARRISBURG -- Every day for weeks, Altoona radio talk show host Dave Barger has been bombarded by calls and comments from listeners about the tightest state Senate race in years.
Senator Bob Jubelirer has to go -- he voted for the pay raise last year. No, Senator Jubelirer has to stay -- he has clout after 30 years in Harrisburg and brings state money back to Blair County.
We need a fresh face in the Senate, Blair County Commissioner John Eichelberger.
Who's the third guy in the race? And what's up with those commercials comparing Jubelirer to actor Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life'?
"It's been amazing,'' Mr. Barger, of station WRTA-AM, said yesterday. "This is going to be a very close race. The anger about the pay raise just hasn't gone away.''
Mr. Jubelirer, 69, was first elected to the Senate in 1974 and is seeking his ninth term. He's been president pro tem, the top post, for nearly 20 years. This is only the second time he's even had opposition in a primary, the other being 1978.
Because of Mr. Jubelirer's standing in the Senate and the furor over the pay raise, "this race is being watched all over the state,'' said Mr. Barger.
The incumbent has two opponents in Tuesday's Republican primary, but the most serious threat is posed by Mr. Eichelberger, 47, a Blair County commissioner since 1996.
The third candidate, C. Arnold McClure, 59, a Huntingdon County farmer and publisher of a weekly newspaper, could hold the key to the outcome, depending on whom he takes more votes from. Some observers see him splitting the anti-Jubelirer vote, thus hurting Mr. Eichelberger.
Most people agree with Mr. Barger that it's going to be close Tuesday night.
A poll done two weeks ago for Mr. Eichelberger showed Mr. Jubelirer at 41 percent, Mr. Eichelberger at 38 percent, Mr. McClure at 10 percent and the rest undecided.
Given Mr. Jubelirer's long tenure and huge campaign budget, many people don't see that as a large margin.
Jubelirer aide David Atkinson wouldn't release specific poll results but said, "Our numbers show us ahead, but it's not a landslide.''
As of May 1, the senator had raised $1.3 million and spent nearly $900,000. With a barrage of TV and radio ads in the last two weeks, his spending is likely to reach $1 million.
He's gotten money from major law firms like Blank Rome ($10,000) and Buchanan Ingersoll ($5,000); the political action committees of firms like Comcast ($25,000), GlaxoSmithKline ($7,500) and Sheetz ($5,000); politicians including former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster ($1,000), state Sen. Joe Conti ($15,000), state Sen. Joseph Scarnati ($10,000) and GOP national committeewoman Christine Olson ($10,000); the Pennsylvania State Education Association ($5,000) and Steelers President Art Rooney II ($1,000).
Mr. Eichelberger has considerably less, raising $191,000 and spending $109,000 as of a May 1 report to the state. He expects to spend at least $80,000 more by Tuesday, said campaign spokesman Tim Kelly.
His biggest contributors have been his brother, Todd Eichelberger, who chipped in $50,000; former GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton and Pittsburgh entrepreneur Glenn Meakem, each giving $25,000; Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Tribune-Review, $20,000; and former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, $1,000.
Mr. Eichelberger also has gotten help from Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, which spent $30,000 on radio ads for him.
The 30th District includes all of Blair, Bedford, Fulton and Huntingdon counties and a slice of Mifflin County.
Some people in the district think Mr. Jubelirer went too far with a recent ad comparing himself to Indiana County-born actor Jimmy Stewart in the tear-jerker movie "Wonderful Life.''
That's the four-hanky 1946 film trotted out every Christmas where Mr. Stewart's character does wonderful things for a fictional small town down on its luck.
"The story proves one good man can make a world of difference, and in our area Bob Jubelirer has been such a man,'' claims the ad. "Without Bob, there would be no [Altoona Curve] baseball field, or convention center, or I-99,'' Bedford Springs Hotel or industrial projects in the 30th.
Mr. Barger said some listeners have been "insulted by the ad. It gives the impression that without him, we wouldn't even be here. It was too much.''
What Mr. Eichelberger lacks in finances, he's tried to make up in star power. Stumping for him have been Mr. Scranton, Mr. Toomey, former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes and Stephen Freind, a former GOP state legislator and outspoken anti-abortion crusader.
Mr. Jubelirer is backed by more moderate Republicans, like U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster.
Mr. Freind went to Blair County yesterday to assail the incumbent's reversal on the abortion issue and criticize the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation for rating Mr. Jubelirer as "pro-life.''
Mr. Freind, a leading pro-life member of the House from 1976 to 1992, said in all that time, "Bob Jubelirer voted, without exception, against every one of our pro-life initiatives. Now he says he's pro-life. He converts during the toughest campaign in which he has ever been engaged. I have concerns about the timing."
Jen Holman, Mr. Jubelirer's campaign manager, said Mr. Freind's information is out of date because he's been out of the Legislature for so long.
"The senator has had a pro-life voting record for the past 16 years,'' she said.
"He has the support of the respected Pro-Life Federation and of the pro-life Republican candidate for governor, Lynn Swann.''
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.