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Has Tom Corbett 'bottomed out'?

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Gob. Tom Corbett on Nov. 10, 2011, in State College, Pa.

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HARRISBURG

By November 2010, Gov. Ed Rendell's welcome had worn thin with voters. Republican Tom Corbett was the anti-Rendell candidate.

Rendell, a Democrat, never met a tax he didn't like and Corbett pledged not to raise them. But it was more than that. Rendell was ubiquitous, doing two-a-day news conferences by the end of his term. Corbett, the man, was serious, reserved, and looked the part of a prosecutor. (He was the attorney general.)

When Corbett took office as governor, he had to clean up the fiscal mess, starting with a $4.2 billion deficit. He proposed severe cuts in higher education and didn't restore $1 billion in federal stimulus money to basic education. He was absorbed in the budget that first year and there was a perception — disputed by his spokesman — that Corbett had become a recluse. Information from the administration seemed guarded and announced only when locked in, like a grand jury indictment. Top Republican fundraisers met with the governor to express their concern that there wasn't enough good news out there about him.

After a rough ride over the Penn State scandal — despite launching the investigation that nailed serial predator Jerry Sandusky — some insiders wondered whether he would even seek re-election.

Corbett has since signaled that he will.

But his poll numbers were, to put it mildly, in the tank. A Franklin & Marshall poll last week showed the lowest job approval of his tenure.

With the assistance of power lawyer and ex-Navy Capt. Steve Aichele, as Corbett's new chief of staff, things have slowly been changing over the past few months. Corbett in January announced he was suing the NCAA in an effort to lift the sanctions it imposed on Penn State after the Freeh report highlighted the culture of silence among top PSU officials that let Sandusky continue to prowl for victims.

Sure, the lawsuit was heavily criticized as political. It's a long shot. But if it gets past the stage of being dismissed, Corbett will have “discovery” to root out NCAA records and leverage to negotiate.

His proposed 2013-14 budget was a kinder, gentler version of the previous two years with a basic ed boost, some increases for human services, more money for state police, more for adults with intellectual disabilities. He seemed to be out more, selling the plan.

He still has Attorney General Kathleen Kane's investigation of his handling of the Sandusky case as a potential political liability down the road.

But John Micek, in a column in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, wrote that while it's “too early to herald the arrival of Tom Corbett 2.0,” his “raised public profile is a sign the administration is losing its allergy to the crucial grunt work of retail politics.”

Clearly, there's been a change. Critics say it is his re-election mode for 2014. Or maybe it's easier to loosen up, free of that awful first budget quagmire.

It's just a theory but Corbett might have bottomed out. And better poll numbers could follow this latest budget.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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