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The GOP shootout for governor

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Patrick Meehan, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, shocked state Capitol observers with his resignation. It comes as the crown jewel of his tenure -- the prosecution of state Sen. Vincent Fumo -- is only two months away from trial.

Why• Meehan is gearing up to run for governor in 2010. But why he'd leave before Fumo's federal corruption case is a baffler. You'd think he'd want to be there for the triumphant moment should Fumo, a prominent Democrat, be convicted.

Of course, if he stayed he'd be there if Fumo walks.

Fumo is accused of defrauding a nonprofit corporation that he helped get millions of dollars in state (i.e., taxpayer) money. He also is accused of using state employees and resources for personal matters.

Some Capitol reporters believe Meehan is trying to get out in front of Attorney General Tom Corbett, another Republican said to have gubernatorial aspirations. Other possible candidates are former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey and, perhaps, Lynn Swann, the former Steeler and 2006 GOP nominee trounced by Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell.

Corbett is expected to dominate the news this summer with the investigation into legislative bonuses. Twelve people -- including former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver County -- are accused of using taxpayer dollars to reward legislative staffers for campaign work.

But Meehan got out ahead of Corbett.

The governor's race will begin in earnest in 2009. On the Democrats' side, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato is considered the front-runner because he is piling up campaign cash and has Rendell's blessing.

So it's not too early to be hitting the campaign trail and raising money. The focus through November will be on the presidential race.

Meehan is a product of the Delaware County GOP machine. He's a former aide to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, and ran one of Specter's toughest campaigns. He could not be reached for comment but spoke at a news conference last week. His departure prompted speculation of all sorts:

• The case against Fumo is weak and Meehan is getting out of Dodge

• A Fumo plea agreement is near and he is better off not being around

• Meehan sees a Barack Obama victory in November and knows he'll be out anyway in the changeover of U.S. attorneys. He'll be campaigning for John McCain.

• He wants that leg up on Corbett, particularly in fundraising, considered Corbett's weakest area.

Meehan can collect hundreds of thousands of dollars while -- if Fumo is convicted - still claiming to have taken down the most famous power broker in recent state history. Fumo is legendary at the Capitol -- not only for his deal-making, but for his bluntness, candor and sizzling partisan rhetoric.

Corbett, meanwhile, can ride out the bonus investigation and get free media. He may look like Pennsylvania's version of Elliot Ness before it's over, some believe.

The Dems will strongly contend it's a partisan witch hunt. He'll take some hits. But I suspect Republicans will be charged before it's over.

Meehan went after the biggest-name Democrat in the Legislature.

The Meehan-Corbett shootout is just getting under way.

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