Politically Savvy Friends

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Week That Was

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Last week was certainly a fascinating political week where political news – local, state, and national -- seemed to pile up on itself, and much of it involved Pittsburgh. So much for the summer doldrums. For me personally, last week week was a hectic week with one-on-one interviews with Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain during his visit to Pittsburgh wherein he confused the Pittsburgh Steelers with the Green Bay Packers and with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney on the future of the beloved local football team, followed by a trip to Harrisburg to cover the financial rescue plan of Don Barden’s North Shore casino (still under construction) by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm on the very same day that state Attorney General Tom Corbett charged 12 past and present Democratic officials and staffers with multiple felonies for using state tax dollars to reward employees for political campaign work. And let’s not forget a Westmoreland County jury acquitting state Sen. Bob Regola of perjury charges over the death of his next door neighbor’s 14-year old with a loaded handgun of Regola’s. Wow! Catch your breath.

We’ve got a lot of issues to cover in this edition of my PSF e-newsletter. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments, or if you want to post something publicly, go to my blog at www.delanosden.blogspot.com. As always, if you prefer not to receive this occasional email, feel free to use the unsubscribe key below. I really hate to lose you, but I don’t want to be anyone’s spam! As regular PSF’ers know, I write this freebie out of love on the dubious assumption that after 14 years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a PA congressman and now nearly 14 years on the “other” side as a television/radio political analyst and TV reporter in “real” America outside the Capitol Beltway, my observations might be amusing, if not helpful. The honest truth is that I just like to write about politics!


Did McCain Fumble in Pittsburgh?

The political blogosphere, the cable news shows, and now some of the mainstream print and broadcast media have picked up on parts of my KDKA-TV interview with John McCain last Wednesday at the Consol Energy Research facility in Pittsburgh. The essence of the story is, that in response to my questions, McCain recounted how he resisted physical torture (he calls it “pressure”) by the North Vietnamese to name his crewmates by reciting instead the names of the Steelers defensive line. Well, as many others have already pointed out, McCain’s original account of this story was that he named the Green Bay Packers, not the Steelers as he said to me. The McCain campaign says the senator just made a mistake in this Pittsburgh interview.

What Actually Happened?

As the political editor for KDKA-TV, I have wanted to do a sit-down interview with the Arizona senator for quite some time. During the PA Democratic primary, I had a number of one-on-one interviews with U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the Republican candidate was not available to local media when he visited Pittsburgh in April. This trip in July was different. Working with McCain’s new press person for PA & Ohio, the campaign set aside 5 minutes for me, following the senator’s tour of the Consol research facility. [The day before I was able to cover McCain’s arrival and his ‘unannounced’ visit to Primanti’s, Pittsburgh’s famous sandwich shop, wherein he joked on camera with me that Primanti’s sandwiches, known for piling on French fries and sauerkraut along with meat between two slices of bread, was actually “low cal.” It was at Primanti’s, by the way, that McCain also joked about U.S. cigarette exports to Iran killing more Iranians].

As is typical of most campaigns, I was asked to be in place about a half-hour (at least) before the one-on-one interview. My photographer, Jeff Roupe, working with the photographer from WPXI-TV, another local station getting an interview, was actually there a couple hours ahead of time, setting up lights, positioning chairs, and testing microphones. And the campaign staff had their American flag properly positioned for the camera shot. At the last minute, we were told that Cindy McCain would also be joining the senator for the interview. The photographers quickly rearranged everything!

Now my approach to these presidential interviews, especially since time is so constrained, is to keep the focus very local. The national media, who have much better daily access to the candidates than the local media does, can query Obama and McCain about the great national and international issues. I want to ask about things that are important to western Pennsylvanians, and I never ever have sufficient time to do even that.

In preparing my questions, I decided to ask McCain the same first question I asked both Obama and Clinton in my initial sit-down interviews with them last March – when you think of Pittsburgh, what do you think of? It’s a good opening question, designed to get a quick honest answer. Not surprisingly, both Obama and McCain gave the same answer – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now this, of course, is a popular answer in football-crazed western PA, but it is also very political. What is more interesting is what they say about the Steelers. In essence, the Illinois senator told me how he did not have a football team growing up in Hawaii so he adopted the Steelers as his own, and then he proceeded to name some of the great players from the Super Bowl team of the 1970s. You can check out Obama’s answer on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=39209@kdka.dayport.com. .

Senator McCain’s elaboration on his answer last Wednesday was even more surprising to me. Here is the text:

Jon Delano: “Senator, when you think of Pittsburgh, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”

Sen. McCain: “The Steelers. [Laughter]. I was a mediocre high school athlete, and I loved and adored sports, but the Steelers really made a huge impression on me, particularly in the early years. When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the pressure, the physical pressures, that were on me, I named the starting lineup, the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron mates.” [Laughter].
Jon Delano: “Did you really?”

Sen. McCain: “Years ago, yes.”

Jon Delano: “In your POW camp?”

Sen. McCain: “Yes, yes, indeed.”

Jon Delano: “Could you do it today?”

Sen. McCain: “No, unfortunately, I couldn’t. But I certainly could then.”

Knowing my time limitations, I segued from this Steelers talk to ask McCain about Dan Rooney and the Steelers ownership issue, a very big front page news story in Pittsburgh, and then quickly moved on to more substantive local issues (i.e., does the senator, as a millionaire, feel the pain of average Pennsylvanians in this difficult economy – I had asked Obama the same question two weeks ago – and the use of PA coal to give us energy independence, along with the standard political questions about his chances in PA). You can watch my full interview with McCain on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=43538@kdka.dayport.com.

The Aftermath:

At the moment McCain uttered his Steelers comment, I knew I had a story for one of our evening broadcasts – KDKA runs double the local news of the other two stations, from 4 pm to 7 pm – and I also knew McCain’s comments on the Rooneys added to its value. Smart politicians – and McCain is smart – know that framing an answer to a local audience is a guaranteed way of getting coverage.

Driving back to station after the interview, Jeff and I, along with my summer intern, reviewed what we recalled from the interview. I must admit that each of us, upon reflection, was puzzled by McCain’s comments because we all knew that the “Steel Curtain” of Super Bowl fame was a 1970s phenomenom. Did McCain really know the Steelers team during the earlier years when he was imprisoned? While I could name Greene, Greenwood, White, Holmes, and many other Steelers from the championship years, don’t ask me about those earlier teams. To be honest, we were not exactly sure when McCain was shot down either. Could McCain be making this stuff up about the Steelers?

Back at the station, after learning exactly when McCain was captured (October 26, 1967), our executive producer had the same reaction that something seemed peculiar. But none of us knew about the Green Bay Packers’ story, so the piece ran without comment, but carefully noted exactly when McCain was held captive so folks could draw their own conclusions. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43555@kdka.dayport.com. By the next day, we all were aware that McCain’s autobiography contradicted his statements in Pittsburgh. In his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers, he named the Green Bay Packers as the team he recited to his captors. Of course, Thursday evening we reported that, along with the McCain campaign’s view that this was simply a mistake. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43612@kdka.dayport.com.

Since then, the story seems to have had a life of its own. I was surprised to open Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette to find the story on the front page, and I gather it has been picked up coast-to-coast in print and broadcast. Google “McCain Steelers” and you’ll get the drift.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Is this all much ado about nothing? Maybe and maybe not. Either John McCain deliberately lied to me in order to maximize local television coverage in a critical swing state, or he simply made a mistake, for whatever reason, confusing the Steelers with the Packers, perhaps because he had, just moments earlier, been presented with a special Steelers jersey and obviously had the Steelers on his mind.

I was there, and I have reviewed the original tape. I simply do not think that McCain was engaged in some deliberate, deceptive, or manipulative attempt to deceive western Pennsylvanians. Nothing about his demeanor in that portion of the interview appears calculating. Moreover, it would have been profoundly stupid to lie about something that he apparently not only wrote about in his autobiography but has also repeated orally. Whatever else the partisans may think about McCain, he is not stupid. Personally, I believe he made a mistake.

Why he made that mistake, we can only guess. I do think the jersey presentation might be part of it, but I think it was an innocent slip, nothing more. His political opponents, of course, have every right to characterize this as something more – and you know they will.

The larger question is: what impact, if any, will this have on the November election in Pennsylvania? In that regard, it may have some minor effect, but nothing fatal. True, everyone in Steelers country will know John McCain confused the Steelers and the Packers. Even if it’s an innocent mistake, it gets attention at the water cooler. McCain’s detractors will characterize this as some deliberate lie, or perhaps (almost as bad) the failings of an elderly man, but I’m not sure that will sell, at least not unless a pattern of similar behavior emerges that the public perceives. This is similar to the effort to portray Obama as a flip-flopper because he occasionally minces his words.

In the end, Pennsylvanians care a whole lot more about jobs and the economy, energy prices, health care, and the war in Iraq than they do about a slip of the tongue by either McCain or Obama.


Corbett Makes His Move:

State politicians have been waiting months for Attorney General Tom Corbett to announce the results of secret grand jury investigations into what has been dubbed Bonusgate. On Thursday afternoon, Corbett, a Republican running for reelection this year and likely to run for governor in 2010, announced charges against twelve individuals, including one former high-ranking House legislator, one incumbent legislator, and ten legislative staffers and former staffers – all Democrats.

Former state Rep. Mike Veon, a Beaver County legislator defeated in 2006, was a prime target. After all, Veon was the second-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives. Corbett accused Veon and Mike Manzo, former chief of staff to current Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, of engineering a scheme to reward with taxpayer dollars (bonuses) those legislative staffers who worked on political campaigns or in other political efforts, like keeping presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot in 2006. Corbett also claimed that a variety of political efforts, including fund-raising and opposition research, were run out of Veon’s government offices. Manzo is also charged with maintaining a ghost employee in Pittsburgh who engaged in sex with Manzo but did no legislative work for her government paycheck.

The allegations are very serious, and, if proved, could cost the defendants both massive fines and time in jail. I have known Corbett for two decades, and I have great respect for his legal skills. He says the investigations are on-going and that Republican legislators, who also handed out bonuses although not at the dollar level as the Democrats, are also targets. Time will tell.

Whither Bill DeWeese:

The most obvious remaining Democratic target is House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, the loquacious former Marine from Greene County for whom Manzo worked. In an exclusive TV interview with me five months ago, DeWeese made it clear that, not only did he do nothing wrong and was betrayed (my words, not his) by his staffers, but he also does not expect to be charged because he himself did nothing illegal. He told me that, while he knew of traditional Christmas bonuses in the sixty to one hundred dollar range, he was as surprised as anyone to learn about the thousands of dollars of bonuses linked to campaign work. Once he knew of the scheme, he brought in outside legal counsel to review the documents, make recommendations about changes to Democratic procedures that would prevent a repeat, and then turn everything over to Corbett and cooperate fully with the grand jury. DeWeese also fired Manzo and several other senior employees.

Harrisburg insiders always believed that Veon ran the political show, so it’s more than conceivable DeWeese was not involved in Bonusgate. In my interview, he called himself the CEO of a 1,000-person operation who, like a true Marine, delegated responsibility to others in the chain. Still, some think that he must have known more than he lets on, and that Manzo may cut a deal with Corbett that brings down DeWeese. Who knows. If you want to watch my February interview with DeWeese, it’s on the KDKA website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=38563@kdka.dayport.com.

The Peculiar Case of Sean Ramaley:

The only incumbent legislator charged by Corbett last week was 33-year old state Rep. Sean Ramaley, often portrayed as one of the young reformers in the state House. The presentment against Ramaley was the biggest surprise of the day, and the one that some Harrisburg insiders think smells the most of politics. Why? Because Ramaley is the Democratic nominee for state Senate in Beaver County (and a small part of Allegheny & Lawrence Counties), an open seat because of the retirement of the incumbent state senator. The district is three-to-two Democratic, and Ramaley was the odds-on favorite to win in November. The Republican candidate is Elder Vogel.

What brought Ramaley to Corbett’s attention was apparently his connection to Veon. In 2004, Ramaley, who is a lawyer and whose wife is an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, left his job with the U.S. Department of Labor to run for state House in an open contest. After Ramaley won the Democratic nomination, Corbett says Veon hired Ramaley for a part-time job in his Beaver Falls office, working four hours a day. Nothing wrong with that except, says Corbett, Ramaley did nothing for his legislative paycheck. Instead, Corbett accuses Ramaley of campaigning on government time and using Veon’s office equipment for campaign work. Through his attorney, Ramaley denies all the charges.

Has anyone ever met a politician who does not campaign, or politick, on government time? As long as Ramaley did something “governmental” for his weekly paycheck, that charge will be hard to sustain against him. The more difficult count for Ramaley involves using taxpayer equipment and facilities for campaign purposes. While political old-timers reading this PSF will say that, too, was standard operating procedure in the old days, the law does not permit that today, either in Washington or Harrisburg. In the 21st century, smart politicians separate their campaign staff and resources from their governmental ones. If Veon did not, and Ramaley took advantage of that, the AG’s office has a case to take to the jury.

The political challenge for Ramaley and his fellow Dems is that he is on the ballot for state Senate this November. Innocent until proved guilty, he has the right to stay on the ballot, and nobody believes this will go to trial before the election. While some local Dems think Ramaley should step down, allowing Democratic committee people to pick a new nominee, others are not sure this is fair to Ramaley, who obviously believes he did nothing wrong. The decision is solely Ramaley’s, and there’s no indication of what he will do.

Could Corbett Aim Higher?

Besides looking at whether Majority Leader Bill DeWeese violated the law, there’s buzz that Corbett may be looking at whether the Nader petition battle leads to other officials at the highest level of state government. In 2004, Ralph Nader sought to run as an independent candidate for president against Republican George Bush and Democrat John Kerry. That year, Pennsylvania required such candidates to submit petitions signed by 25,697 registered voters in order to get placed on the ballot. Nader submitted 51,273 signatures. But after his petitions were challenged, the Commonwealth Court found that nearly two-thirds of Nader’s signatures were either invalid or fraudulent.

Writing for the Court, President Judge James Colins was scathing. “I am compelled to emphasize that this signature-gathering process was the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this court,” wrote Colins, saying Nader’s petitions “shocked the conscience” of the court.

Getting Nader off the Pennsylvania ballot was highest priority for Gov. Ed Rendell, the Kerry campaign, and the Democratic Party in 2004, and proving the fraud of Nader’s petitions was a massive undertaking. Polls showed a very tight race between Bush and Kerry with Nader hovering around 3 percent. In the end, with Nader off the ballot, Kerry squeaked out a win in Pennsylvania with 2.5 percent of the vote.

On Thursday, Corbett, who in 1988 was the Western PA campaign director for then Vice President George H. W. Bush and who, after Bush’s victory, became U.S. Attorney for Western PA, noted that at least 50 House Democratic caucus employees were engaged in reviewing the Nader petitions on government time. In his press statement, Corbett said the grand jury found that these employees contributed “a staggering number of man-hours.” Did the order to use Democratic staffers in this effort come from someone other than Veon? Well, as Corbett says, the investigation is on-going.

Upcoming Congressional Battles:

In 2006, Pennsylvania was one of those key states that helped deliver the Congress to the Democrats. Besides Bob Casey’s win over Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate, four incumbent Republican members of the House lost reelection here in PA to Democratic challengers. In 2008, Democrats hope to add to those numbers, while Republicans think they have a shot at regaining a couple seats.

Back to reclaim her old seat is former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican from Allegheny County who lost to now U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire by about 9,800 votes. The 4th C.D. is one of those swing districts in Southwestern PA that voted for Bush in 2004, Lynn Swann (for governor) and Bob Casey (for senator) in 2006. Hart thinks she lost because the public mood was sour against incumbents (it was) and she did not react quickly enough against attacks that linked her to Bush and Santorum (that’s true, too). In the rematch, Altmire has a tremendous advantage in money and has been visible, especially on veterans issues. At the moment, this is Altmire’s to lose, and nobody I talk to really thinks he will. But if anyone can make a race of this, it’s Melissa Hart.

In Delaware County, many think U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, should keep the 7th C.D. in Democratic hands. Sestak defeated former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon by a whopping 33,000 votes two years ago. This year he is opposed by Republican Craig Williams, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, who served in the Marines during the Gulf War and returned to serve as legal counsel to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the current Iraq War. Williams’ background is impressive, but nobody knows him – yet.

Not far away in the 8th C.D. in Bucks County, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick by 1,500 votes, may have a tougher time holding onto his seat. The Republican is Tom Manion, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive whose son was killed in Iraq. Murphy himself is the only Iraq war veteran serving in Congress, and has done well in the fund-raising department. But this is a competitive district, and Republicans think Murphy can be beaten.

The fourth Democratic winner of ’06 who faces a challenge in ’08 is U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, a Democrat who defeated the morally challenged U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood by 12,000 votes in the 10th C.D. in northeast-central PA that should never elect a Democrat. This year the G.O.P. aims to prove that with its candidate, Chris Hackett, that the Carney win was a fluke because of Sherwood’s escapades with a mistress. Hackett, a wealthy entrepreneur who loaned his primary campaign some $800,000, narrowly won his G.O.P. primary but has the personal resources – and the voter registration edge – to make this competitive.

While freshman Democrats Altmire, Carney, Murphy, and Sestak have to defend their seats against Republican challengers, the Dems think they can actually pick up a couple more seats in PA. In the 3rd C.D. that stretches from Erie down into the suburbs of Pittsburgh, U.S. Rep. Phil English faces Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, a newcomer to politics who heads up the Lake Erie Arboretum. English, who is generally regarded as one of the most moderate of PA Republicans, has breezed to victory in years past, but Dems think Dahlkemper can pull an upset. Like most of these races, much will depend on how much money she can raise to get herself better known.

Another perennial Dem target is U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents parts of three SW PA counties in the 18th C.D., including many of the southern and eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. This year Murphy’s challenger is local businessman Steve O’Donnell who won a three-way primary in April. O’Donnell may have some personal money, but most think Murphy is going to be very tough to defeat even if he continues to have some alleged ethical issues. Murphy has been accused by some former staffers of requiring them to campaign on government time – sound familiar? – and the House Ethics Committee and the local FBI are reportedly looking into this. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=21611@kdka.dayport.com. Now this stuff was out shortly before the 2006 election and did not hurt Murphy at that time. Whether O’Donnell can make more of it this year remains to be seen. Most analysts I know think the hard-working Murphy is likely to get reelected, but O’Donnell has the potential to make this close.

While the Dems target two more incumbent Republicans, the G.O.P. thinks it has a good shot at another Dem incumbent, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Kanjorski has represented the north-central 11th C.D. for years, and his challenger this year is a familiar one, Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta. Six years ago, Barletta lost to Kanjorski by 22,000 votes. But since then the mayor has become an iconic political figure because of his anti-immigrant stance, including a ban on illegals working in his city. The court later struck down Barletta’s ordinance, but he would appear to be stronger today than in 2002. One problem for the G.O.P. Kanjorski is an incredibly strong fund-raiser. At the end of the first quarter, Kanjorski already had $1.8 million in cash on hand.

While Pennsylvania could provide some pick-up for the G.O.P., the more likely scenario is status quo. That means the Dems also fail in their effort to unseat G.O.P. incumbents. Of course, it’s early, and I reserve the right to revise and extend as we get closer to Labor Day.

There’s always a lot more to write about, but this is long enough for the moment. Please feel free to leave your comments on these or any other topics. In the meantime, let’s hope this coming week is just a little less politically consequential than the one just past.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Political Independence Day

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Independence Day! In a political year of so many firsts, it’s easy to forget how novel this whole experiment in American democracy was 238 years ago when some wealthy white men met in Philadelphia to declare independence from an incompetent king and a despotic Parliament in Great Britain.

The notion that a colony could assert its own rights to elected representation and govern itself, separate and apart from its mother country, was mind-boggling at the time. The revolution of 1776, labeled by some historians a “conservative” revolution, clearly unleashed the “radical” belief among millions in the years that followed that political independence is a goal worth fighting – and dying – for. The killing of innocent Zimbabwe citizens by the Mugabe murder squads, when their only crime was a desire to exercise the basic democratic right to choose a new leader, demonstrates that the fight for democratic freedom begun in 1776 is still not won for many in 2008.

We should remember that as we proudly fly the flag on the Fourth of July, enjoy our family picnics, and ooh-and-aah to fireworks displays across the country.

Much has happened since my last PSF, so forgive a little bit of catch-up. As always, if you do not want to receive these political emails, just use the unsubscribe key. But I hope you will read on, and, more importantly, send me your personal comments, observations, and off-the-record opinions (and tips) about all things political. If you want to know more about me, see some of my recent TV stories, or post a public reaction, just log onto my blog at www.delanosden.blogspot.com.


The Summer of Our Discontent:

Nobody beyond the Washington Beltway is really happy about the direction of the country or the state of our economy these days. With four dollar a gallon gasoline, a stock market in rapid decline, a depressed housing market and growing foreclosures, and the rising costs of just about everything, family budgets are stretched beyond belief. Sometimes I wonder if the politicians in Washington really understand the pain.

In some of the latest polls in June, only 13% (LA Times/Bloomberg Poll) to 16% (Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll) of those polled think the country is heading in the “right” direction. Put another way, only 14% (both Gallup Poll and Newsweek Poll) are “satisfied” with the way things are going in this country. I can’t remember poll numbers this pessimistic.

While you have to wonder who these contented people really are, the fact is the vast, vast majority of Americans (76% to 84%) are unhappy about the state of the nation. And why not? It’s a rare family that has not seen its standard of living decline this year, as wages and salaries fail to keep even with rising costs. In short, Americans are in the dumps, both economically and emotionally.

Where is President Bush?

When it comes to dealing with the economy or addressing the energy crisis, President Bush is perceived by many Americans to be AWOL. Only 9% (LA Times/Bloomberg Poll) think Bush’s economic policies have left us better off today than we were before he took office in 2001. Some 75% say the Republican White House has made things worse.

With just six months left in office, the president is doing what many lame ducks do – escape Washington by traveling all over the world. But given how bad things are in this country and how indifferent he and his administration appear to be to problems that are stripping the value out of our wallets, it’s no surprise that his popularity is at all-time lows.

Every poll conducted in the last four weeks shows President Bush with job approvals ranging from 23% to 30%. His disapproval ranges from 64% to 73%. Unless something changes in the next few months, President Bush is likely to leave office as one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history.

Parenthetically, some have suggested to me that George W. Bush is the worst president in American history. That’s a judgment better left to historians. Lots of presidents left office deeply unpopular (like Harry Truman), only to be resurrected years later. For Bush to be the worst president in history, he would have to beat such undistinguished predecessors as Millard Filmore, James Buchanan, and Chester Arthur. Another standard to consider is that only 16 presidents of 43 were reelected to a second term: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Of those, three did not get to complete their second terms (Lincoln, McKinley, and Nixon). So credit President Bush with being in very rare presidential company. As for his legacy, that’s a column for later.

Where is the Congress?

The lack of presidential leadership on our major problems is matched by the seeming indifference emanating from both parties in the Congress. Only 13% to 19% in the four most recent polls (FOX/Opinion Dynamics, AP-Ipsos, Gallup, and Wall Street Journal/NBC) approve of the job Congress has done.

What’s there to approve? The partisan bickering has deadlocked the joint, and only on rare occasion (like the economic stimulus package) have both parties come together for action.

Having worked in that body for 14 years once upon a time, let me say that the Congress is inherently incapable of leadership, especially when there is little leadership out of a lame duck White House. With 535 politicians, often with separate agendas, it takes very strong House and Senate leaders to corral the troops, and I don’t see that leadership in either party right now.

It’s also unfair to blame only the Democrats who have a narrow majority in both houses right now. As a representative body, the rules allow the minority party, especially in the Senate, to block the majority’s agenda at almost every turn. The Republicans have done that, sometimes for good reasons, but it adds to the perception of inaction.

In a few months, voters will get the chance to rate the Congress by assessing their individual representative and (in some states) their senator. In early July, most pundits think the Democrats will pick up seats in both the House and Senate. If that happens, it’s not because the Democratic-controlled Congress accomplished much this last year. In truth, the public is blaming the Republicans, via unhappiness with President Bush, for the mess we’re in. Fair or not, when times are tough, the party in the White House almost always gets the blame.

The Race for the White House:

If you live in a must-win state like Pennsylvania, you are already being saturated with television ads from both John McCain and Barack Obama. People often ask me why the candidates don’t take a break this summer like they did in the old days. Well, truth is this election is up for grabs, and neither candidate can afford to let the other get a head start. So the public is doomed to a never-ending campaign on our TV screens.

With the mood so sour on President Bush, it’s a wonder that McCain is even in this race at all. But he is, in part because of his unusual background and in part because the nation is still uncertain about Obama.

Forget the national match-up polls. They are meaningless because we don’t elect presidents by popular vote [just ask Al Gore]. The presidential contest comes down to a state-by-state battle for electoral votes, and that’s what gives McCain hope that a Republican can win the White House this year.

I’ve seen one electoral college map that gives McCain 194 electoral votes to Obama’s 185, with 270 needed to win the White House. Thirteen states are up for grabs in this scenario. Another map, which allocates every state based on local opinion polls no matter how narrow the lead, gives Obama a whopping 317 votes, by awarding him states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, states in which he currently leads by single digits within the margin of polling error.

Both campaigns are much too smart to think these early electoral college maps are predictive. Here’s my all-inclusive list of early-summer “battleground” states that will determine the next president: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Many of these 18 states may be lost to one candidate or the other by mid-September after both presidential conventions conclude. But in the meantime, watch Obama and McCain criss-cross the country with strategic stops in the states listed above.

Some Personal Reflections:

As PSF readers know, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing presidential candidates over the years. I just had my third chance this year to sit down with Barack Obama when he was in Pittsburgh last week, and I’m looking forward to my first chance for a sit-down chat with John McCain in the near future [I have interviewed McCain in one of those media scrums, but that hardly counts for creating impressions].

As a journalist and political analyst (although one of those rare ones who worked on the government and campaign side before leaping to the dark side of media), I try hard to be scrupulously objective in these encounters. Generally, the campaign gives much less time than needed – I was given 5 minutes of air time with Obama that stretched to 6 minutes, 40 seconds, because of his answers – but you do form some judgments in both their demeanor before and after the interviews, as well as the way they answer your questions.

Obama is smart, politically astute, cordial, thoughtful, and careful in his answers. In this third interview, he acted like he remembered me (although that could be good staff work), but I’m not convinced that he does (unlike Hillary Clinton who spouted off things from our earlier off-camera conversations that evidenced she really did remember). I don’t fault the candidates for this, as they meet so many local journalists that one encounter probably seems like another.

Much more importantly, Obama’s answers to my questions were direct. In particular, I asked him about whether he could relate to the pain of average Americans (after all, he’s now a millionaire) which he answered (in my view) honestly, acknowledging that his circumstances today allow him to absorb the pain at the pump (unlike most of us) but stressing that he is not far removed from his days of struggle and reflecting that he is probably the closest to a “middle class” candidate for president in a long time.

You can watch my full interview with Obama, including his answers to my questions on presidential leadership, energy (especially clean coal technology), the Pennsylvania primary and upcoming contest here, and his plan to replace the White House bowling alley with a basketball court. Just click http://kdka.com/video/?id=43059@kdka.dayport.com. I’ll give equal time to McCain in my next PSF, after I sit down with him.


Up for Grabs:

Early in the PA primary season, I wrote that Obama could beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, if he did certain things, including camping out in western PA as per the Ed Rendell campaign playbook of 2002. Obama did not do this, and Clinton won the state by 9 percent. The western part of the state (indeed, almost all parts of the state outside Philadelphia) supported Clinton. While Obama won the city of Pittsburgh, he lost Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) and was trounced in the neighboring southwestern counties that Democrats must win to carry the state. In Fayette County, for example, 79% of the Dems voted for Clinton over Obama.

Will these Democrats, even at Hillary’s urging, vote for Obama in November? To be absolutely honest, I don’t know. The most recent Rasmussen poll has Obama ahead by 4 points, 46 to 42. Considering that John Kerry only defeated George Bush by two points in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to consider the Keystone State as anything but a battleground in the months ahead.

What Obama has going for him is the economic mess that argues for change. Few people want a “third term” for George Bush, the very clever mantra Democratic pundits have used to frame John McCain. What he has going against him is that he is still not well known on a personal level and is subject to every suspicion and insinuation that his opponents can dredge up and that the conservative folks in this state could buy into.

And, yes, race will play a role, too. Gov. Rendell was excoriated by some when he suggested that an African American running for office in PA automatically loses five to seven percentage points because of race. Rendell cited his own campaign against former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, an African American Republican. Whether the governor should have played political pundit is one thing, but Rendell was absolutely correct in his observation. Race does still matter to enough people that in a close election it can make a difference.

If Obama could beef up his PA schedule, so could McCain. McCain has spent even less time in PA than Obama. The Republican visited Pittsburgh just once during the primary, and is scheduled to make his first post-primary stop here next week. He did spend a day in the eastern part of the state last week, and I suspect we shall see a lot of both nominees in the months ahead.

History is pretty clear on the importance of Pennsylvania. The last Democrat to win the White House without PA was Harry Truman in 1948, and only two Republicans in U.S. history (beginning with Lincoln’s win here in 1860) have won the presidency without Pennsylvania – Richard Nixon and George Bush.

Statewide Contests Below the Surface:

Quickly now, can you name the candidates for State Treasurer? How about the challengers to state Attorney General Tom Corbett or Auditor General Jack Wagner? Surprise! Pennsylvanians will elect its three statewide row officers this year, positions that are often stepping stones to Governor and Senator.

Republican Corbett’s opponent for the state’s top legal job is Democrat John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northhampton County (back east in Allentown, PA). Democrat Wagner’s opponent for auditor general is Republican Chet Beiler of Lancaster County, a local businessman. So far, neither Morganelli nor Beiler have been particularly visible, while the incumbents do everything they can to say in the news.

The open seat for state Treasurer, the seat given up by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, features a race between two Philadelphians – Republican Tom Ellis, a former Montgomery County commissioner, and Democrat Rob McCord, a Montgomery County venture capitalist. McCord was much more visible in the primary because he had opponents, unlike Ellis, so perhaps has a slight leg up in this mostly invisible contest.

While there is so much other state and local political intrigue to opine on, I’m going to halt this here, asking my PSF’ers to give me the chance to pen something over the holiday weekend. If some events get rained out this weekend, I just might get Part II out on Monday! In the meantime, I hope you and your family have a terrific Fourth of July celebration. Despite our current travails, this is a great country because of the sacrifices of so many men and women. Few among us would want to live in any other nation, especially those for whom this kind of democratic debate would risk torture and death. The optimist in me knows that it won’t be long before America is back on a roll again.