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Onorato's double obstacle

HARRISBURG — There are numbers buried deep in a Quinnipiac University poll that could play a larger role in determining the winner in Pennsylvania's governor's race than the six-point lead Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett holds over Democrat Dan Onorato.

With an open seat and the Democrats' significant voter registration edge, it's likely the race will tighten by November. It is, as everyone seems to agree, Corbett's to lose. Corbett leads Onorato 43-37 percent.

But what the poll really shows is that this is a three-way race. The third candidate: Gov. Ed Rendell. Or more precisely, his record.

Over two terms, Rendell has brought us casinos and higher state taxes and a token property tax cut. Billions have been poured into "economic development." But the state's unemployment rate still is nearly 10 percent.

Voters disapprove of the job Rendell is doing by 50-42 percent. And by a 55-32 percent ratio, they don't want the next governor to continue Rendell's policies.

And that's a problem for Onorato, Allegheny County's chief executive.

Rendell's unpopularity and "the cycle" -- Pennsylvania's pattern of bringing a new political party into the governor's mansion every eight years -- will be a huge obstacle for Onorato.

"The cycle" helped elect Rendell in 2002 after eight years of Republicans Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. And it's no fluke, says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. He and political analyst Mike Young wrote recently that the probability that this trend dating to 1954 is an accident is .00014 percent.

Pennsylvanians get tired of the policies of one party and want to give the other guy a chance. Whether Rendell's unpopularity is a result of the cycle or just feeds the cycle is unclear.

It's a potentially deadly combination for Onorato, given that it allows Corbett to run against Rendell as much as against Onorato.

Corbett will be able to make the case that Onorato won the primary with Rendell's help.

Onorato spent $7 million or so during the primary. The chance of a county official raising that kind of money on his own is probably a lower probability than the cycle being an accident. It's been reported that Rendell provided Onorato with some of his key fundraisers. There are other ties of campaign staffers to Rendell.

Corbett now is suffering from a self-inflicted wound, having told WITF public radio that people on unemployment "don't want to come back to work while they still have unemployment." His campaign said he was repeating what he was told by businesses. Never mind that in some cases it might be true, Onorato hammered Corbett all week and got a lot of ink.

Some Republicans were concerned at the Corbett campaign's lack of a counterattack. Democrat consultant James Carville, who handled the late Gov. Bob Casey's 1986 and 1990 campaigns, if he were working for Corbett, would have been back in Onorato's face claiming Onorato was defending unemployment fraud.

Corbett's tardiness in explaining his remark also had some GOP elected officials nervous. Their fate might be tied to Corbett's performance.

While it will give Onorato an attack ad in October, it's not a game-changer. And it pales by comparison to the megatrend of "The Cycle."

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