In Pittsburgh, Labor Day and its hours-long parade of union loyalists regularly mark the beginning of the sprint toward the November election.
This year, with a dearth of competitive races for local offices, the political focus has shifted forward a year, to the contest where Tom Corbett, the state's currently unpopular governor, will defend his tenure and the decades-old pattern of the major parties trading control of the governor's mansion every eight years. A handful of the members of the large Democratic field vying to challenge Mr. Corbett will be working the crowd at the parade, highlighting the early start to the 2014 competition.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Montgomery County, plans to stop by, as does Kathleen McGinty, the former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. State Treasurer Rob McCord, who has yet to announce his candidacy formally but is expected to do so before mid-September, also plans to stop by. All three are from southeastern Pennsylvania.
Former Auditor General Jack Wagner is a regular presence at the Labor Day gatherings over the years. He'll march again Monday, raising the question of whether he'll just be greeting old friends or laying the groundwork for his own entry into the growing field of Democratic challengers.
Mr. Wagner was considering what would be his second run for governor before he entered and lost the May primary for the Democratic nomination for mayor. Despite that setback, he has said repeatedly since the primary that he is considering the statewide race.
A longtime adviser to Mr. Wagner said last week that he remains genuinely undecided as he assesses the fundraising and other logistical challenges of a new statewide bid. At another annual political rite, the Cookie Cruise, first launched by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, and now hosted by his son, Councilman Corey O'Connor, Mr. Wagner said he believes he could mount a credible bid for the nomination, particularly because most of the current field comes from the eastern part of the state. But he added that he continued to study other opportunities, including possibilities in the private sector.
Lured by Mr. Corbett's chronically weak poll numbers, the other Democrats who have announced so far include John Hanger, who like Ms. McGinty, once headed the DEP in the last Democratic administration, and another former Rendell cabinet member, York County businessman Tom Wolf. Mr. Wolf and Ms. McGinty also appeared at the Cookie Cruise last month, schmoozing with the largely Democratic crowd milling around the Gateway Clipper fleet.
Rounding out the still-evolving roster of Democratic contenders are two lesser-known hopefuls, J. Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County commissioner, and Max Myers, an evangelical pastor from Cumberland County.
Big public events such as the parade are the exception at this stage of the still-gestating Democratic contest. For the most part the candidates are concentrating on the behind-the-scenes work of raising money and convincing influential donors and party figures that their campaigns have the potential strength to put them among the real contenders next spring. To varying degrees, that's a challenge for all of the current candidates.
Unlike 2002, when two already well-known Democrats, Ed Rendell and Bob Casey, squared off, none of the declared candidates are anything like household names statewide.
After more than two decades representing southeastern Pennsylvania in the state Senate and the U.S. House, Ms. Schwartz entered the race with the most name recognition. She also started with the advantage of a $3.1 million Congressional war chest that she was able to transfer to her new gubernatorial campaign account. Ms. Schwartz was first elected to the House in 2004 and became a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
In the 2012 election cycle, she was also in charge of candidate recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
She posted modest leads in the few public early polls of the Democratic field, although, not surprisingly at this point, "undecided" has been the overall leader in every public survey so far. A Quinnipiac University poll in early June found her support at 18 percent, while none of her rivals approached double digits and 63 percent were undecided.
Last month, her campaign released selective findings of an internal poll from mid-July that depicted her with a still larger lead -- 34 percent -- followed by Ms. McGinty at 15 percent; Mr. Wolf, 11 percent; and Mr. McCord, 10 percent. The undecided number, 30 percent, was significantly lower than that found in any of the public surveys.
Mr. McCord, the state treasurer who will formally join the field soon, has won statewide twice and is also seen as a proven fundraiser as well as being personally wealthy. He ended 2012 with $1.6 million in his campaign account. How much he or other candidates have raised through the current year remains unclear. At a stage of the race where projections of strength are vital to lure contributors and power brokers to their campaigns, none of the candidates are obliged to disclose their fundraising totals until the end of the year.
Mr. McCord, like Ms. Schwartz, is from Montgomery County. A Harvard graduate with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, he was an executive of a high-tech firm and a manager of technology investment funds. Mr. McCord also has the advantage of having held a public position that allows him, for the most part, to make news when he wants to make news.
Unlike a member of a legislative body, he's not been forced to compile a long record of votes on issues that can be picked apart by rivals. At a time when political incumbents at all levels are facing plunging poll numbers, he can be expected to argue that his business background offers an alternative to more traditional political careers.
That's a narrative he's going to have to share with Mr. Wolf, a York County business owner with a compelling story, in two videos on his website, on how he rescued the family firm. Mr. Wolf has sought to bolster his candidate credibility with a pledge to be willing to spend $10 million of his own money on the race.
The York County businessman served as secretary of revenue under Mr. Rendell. He launched a bid to succeed his old boss in the 2010 election cycle, but pulled out on a rescue mission for the former family business threatened with collapse in the financial crisis. After dropping from the 2010 race, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. engineered a successful turnaround for the endangered firm.
While official records on the subject are hard to find, Mr. Wolf would enjoy another distinction if he were elected governor. A review of official state portraits suggests that he would be the first governor with a beard in more than a century -- since Gov. Samuel W. Pennypacker left office in 1907.
Two more Rendell Cabinet veterans, Ms. McGinty and Mr. Hanger, were both secretaries of the DEP. They share impressive resumes and unproven track records in the vital area of fundraising.
Before joining the Rendell administration, Ms. McGinty, of Wayne, Chester County, was a senior environmental adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, as well as former President Bill Clinton. While she is from Eastern Pennsylvania, her campaign manager, Mike Mikus, knows the Western Pennsylvania political terrain well after stints as campaign manager for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz.
Her DEP successor, Mr. Hanger, has a low budget but energetic social media presence. Earlier in the summer, he toured the state on a school bus highlighting his call for more spending on education.
Last month, he proposed a college tuition relief plan that would provide one or two years of free tuition, depending on the school, then peg repayment of tuition debt to a percentage of a graduate's salary.
Before his DEP tenure, Mr. Hanger was a member of the Public Utility Commission during the Casey administration and was instrumental in shaping the state's energy deregulation program.
Dismissing the suggestion that he is a long shot for the nomination, his field director, Ed Boito, said, "We're the only ones out there talking about issues. Every one else is out there dialing for dollars."
Mr. Hanger won't be at the parade Monday, but he plans a Pittsburgh stop Saturday to appear at a rally opposing the criminal status for marijuana use, another one of his campaign proposals.
Mr. Rendell, the latest Democrat to grasp the prize this group seeks, says it's far too early to handicap the field.
"The polls right now don't mean a thing," he said. "This thing might not be decided until the last few weeks because no one is known. ... It's going to be a long haul."
Discussing the possibility of a Wagner candidacy, he said, "Jack's candidacy comes down to one word -- geography.
"With five candidates from east of the Susquehanna, if he can get 70 percent in southwestern Pennsylvania, he could win it. The question is, can he raise the money to get that?"
From Mr. Wagner's point of view, the state's 2000 Democratic primary for the Senate offers a tantalizing template for a potential political rebound. In that contest, former Rep. Ron Klink capitalized on his Western Pennsylvania base to win the nomination against a field of candidates from the East. Ms. Schwartz, in her last bid for a statewide office, was one of them.
But Mr. Klink points out that the state's political geography has shifted since then, eroding the West's relative strength as a source of Democratic votes.
"Western Pennsylvania, back in the time I was running, was much, much stronger [for a Democrat]; Western Pennsylvania is now leaning more and more Republican."
He noted that when he represented a Western Pennsylvania House district, he had plenty of company in the local delegation, with neighboring districts held by fellow Democrats, including the late Frank Mascara, the late John Murtha, former Rep. William Coyne and Rep. Mike Doyle. Now Mr. Doyle is the only House Democrat west of the Susquehanna.
"The region is trending much more Republican at least the way it performs ... taking a political scientist's view of it, it's changed dramatically in 14 years," Mr. Klink said.
For all of the candidates, Mr. Rendell said, "The real race right now is raising money."
As a mayor, governor, and onetime chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Rendell was perhaps the most prolific fundraiser in the state's political history, but he says he'd not weigh in on this contest.
"I am staying out of it," he said. "Three of them worked for me. McCord raised money for me in '02. Allyson was my go-to state senator when I was mayor."
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM