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Undecideds abound in top court, Senate, gubernatorial races

| Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

HARRISBURG — Superior Court Judges Joan Orie Melvin and Jack Panella are locked in a dead-heat in the race for state Supreme Court, based on a statewide poll released Tuesday that shows the lowest voter confidence in Pennsylvania's direction in 14 years.

Orie Melvin, a Republican from Marshall, led Panella, a Northumberland County Democrat, 22 percent to 20 percent in the poll of 529 registered voters conducted by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster County. The poll for the Tribune-Review and WTAE-TV was conducted Oct. 20-25 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

The winner of the Supreme Court seat will swing the seven-member court to either a Republican or Democratic majority, which could play a role in determining legislative and congressional boundaries after the 2010 Census. The race is up for grabs, with 54 percent of voters saying they are undecided.

"What this says is the biggest winner at the moment is undecided," said G. Terry Madonna, the poll's director, noting it's an indication that judicial races are "below the radar for average voters."

Both candidates express confidence in their campaigns.

"We feel very confident about where we are and the momentum we're building," said Dan Fee, a spokesman for Panella. "We are opening up a sizable lead," Fee said, rejecting the poll's findings.

"I'm confident, not because of any poll, but because of the feelings of people I speak to in communities," Orie Melvin said. "I'm never a person who relies on polls. My theory is, you won't be able to buy this election. I am the voice of reform in 67 counties."

Holly Bader, 40, a mother of three from Zelienople, said she has no favorite in the Supreme Court race. Although acknowledging the race's importance, Bader said getting good information about the candidates is difficult.

"I really don't know a lot about the candidates," said the Butler County resident.

Beverly Sagath, 74, a retired homemaker in Cheswick, said she supports Orie Melvin.

"She seemed forthright. There was something about her I liked. ... I do think we need more women on the courts," Sagath said.

The court results come amid apparent voter discontent in Pennsylvania. Sixty percent of those polled said the state is headed in the wrong direction — the highest number since at least 1995. The poll found that 32 percent believe the state is headed in the right direction, and 8 percent aren't sure.

The mood is partly driven by "the perfect storm of problems — the recession, followed by the (101-day state) budget impasse," Madonna said.

Bader said she is concerned about the direction of the state and federal governments. She said the state's failure to pass a budget on time — coupled with continuing high unemployment numbers at the national level — leave a bad taste in her mouth.

When asked whether Sen. Arlen Specter, the former Republican now Democrat deserves re-election, 66 percent of those polled said it's time for a change. One-fourth of voters said Specter deserves re-election, and 11 percent didn't know.

In the 2010 primary race for the Senate, Specter leads U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware County, 30 to 18 percent, with 47 percent undecided and 5 percent choosing "other." Since an August poll, however, Specter has lost 7 percentage points — the same number that Sestak has gained.

In a hypothetical general election match-up, Specter narrowly would lead former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Allentown, by a 33 to 31 percent margin, with 30 percent undecided and 6 percent choosing someone else.

Sandy Szmuc, 61, of North Versailles, a preschool teacher, said she probably would support Toomey next year. She knows she won't vote for Specter.

"It's time for him to retire. He's on a set path and won't change," Szmuc said. "We need new people."

Specter's campaign had no comment on the poll.

"Polls go up and down, but Arlen Specter's numbers have only been going down for more than sixth months. Pennsylvanians know it's time for a change in Washington," said Nachama Soloveichik, spokesman for the Toomey campaign.

There's no clear leader in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor, according to the poll.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato of Brighton Heights garnered 10 percent, compared to 9 percent for Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview.

Other Democrats — former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel of Montgomery County, Tom Knox of Philadelphia and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty — scored in single digits. The poll found 66 percent undecided.

In the Republican race for governor, Attorney General Tom Corbett of Shaler leads U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester County by a 30 percent to 8 percent margin, with 57 percent undecided and 5 percent choosing "other."

Corbett's numbers doubled since the August poll. Gerlach gained 2 percentage points.

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