As Carl Romanelli, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, was preparing to debate Sen. Rick Santorum on television, a Commonwealth Court judge signaled that he was about to throw him off the ballot.
The debate yesterday, on the PCN cable network, went ahead as scheduled, but Mr. Romanelli's candidacy will not, unless he gets a last-minute reprieve from the state Supreme Court.
Commonwealth Court Judge James Kelley said during a hearing yesterday morning that Mr. Romanelli was at least 9,000 signatures short of the 67,070 needed to secure a spot on the November ballot.
The development represents a potentially crucial victory for the Democratic Party, whose lawyers have argued that the Green Party nominating petitions were flawed. Its opposition was based on fear that Mr. Romanelli, who supports abortion rights and favors an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, would draw anti-Santorum votes away from Democratic nominee Bob Casey, the state treasurer.
The same analysis led the Santorum campaign to encourage GOP donors to fund the Green candidate's petition drive. Republican contributions to the Luzerne County Green Party allowed the group to hire a Florida firm known as JSM Inc. to assist in collecting the signatures needed to secure a spot on the ballot.
A clearly disappointed Mr. Santorum questioned the integrity of Judge Kelley's action.
"I don't think the court has treated Mr. Romanelli fairly," the incumbent told The Associated Press. "It's very, very clear that these are partisan Democratic judges who are doing the partisan Democratic thing."
Mr. Romanelli issued a defiant statement in the face of the setback.
"The Democrats have a long way to go to get me off the ballot," he said. "Our fate will lie with the Supreme Court's decision regarding how many signatures we actually need to get on the ballot in [Pennsylvania]."
Cliff Levine, the Democrats' attorney, praised the decision, which the judge made in a statement from the bench.
"We were interested in pursuing this challenge because of our confidence that Bob Casey represents a broad coalition of Democrats while Sen. Santorum was interested in pursuing a divide and conquer strategy," he said. "Now there will be the head-to-head match-up that Sen. Santorum was obviously trying to avoid."
Mr. Romanelli's attorney said he would appeal yesterday's ruling. As his client's statement suggested, however, his best opportunity to maintain the Green's ballot spot rests with the state Supreme Court's ruling on the related issue of whether state elections officials were correct in setting the signature threshold at 67,000.
State law dictates that independent candidates gather signatures from voters equal to 2 percent of the number of votes cast for the top vote-getter in the most recent statewide election. Coincidentally, that was, according to the officials' interpretation, Mr. Casey's 2004 landslide victory for state treasurer.
Lawrence Otter, Mr. Romanelli's attorney, contends state officials were wrong in choosing that election. He contends the 2 percent should have been calculated from the number of "yes" votes received in a 2005 judicial retention election, a process that would bring the signature requirement down to approximately 15,000.
If the hurdle were set that low, Mr. Levine acknowledged yesterday, it would be almost certain that Mr. Romanelli's petitions, and candidacy, would survive.
The Green hopeful originally submitted petitions that, by his count had nearly 100,000 signatures. But over the last few weeks, the Democratic legal team was able to demonstrate to the court's satisfaction that the petitions were rife with invalid signatures.
The 9,000-signature deficiency emerged through a still incomplete review of the petitions. Mr. Levine said that if the process had continued, he was confident thousands more invalid signatures would have been found.
A slew of recent polls have suggested that Mr. Romanelli's presence on the ballot would be a major, and perhaps essential element in Mr. Santorum's chances of defending his seat.
A Philadelphia Inquirer survey conducted by Temple University and released Sunday showed Mr. Casey with a lead of 49 percent to 39 percent over the incumbent, with 3 percent for Mr. Romanelli and 8 percent undecided.
It was one more in a series of surveys in which Mr. Santorum's support has hovered around or below 40 percent, suggesting that the incumbent's re-election hopes would be best served by a race that could be won with a plurality rather than an outright majority of the votes cast.
Politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.