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Driscoll plays a frustrating game of wait-and-see

| Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003

Inside his small eat-in kitchen with a power cord attached to his depleted cell phone, Westmoreland County Judge John Driscoll talks to friends about the election results still trickling in from the Philadelphia area on Wednesday afternoon. As of late yesterday, Driscoll was still trailing Republican Susan Gantman by about 5,000-6,000 votes for the remaining seat on the state appellate court bench.

After nearly 36 hours on his feet in a statewide judicial race punctuated with countless ups and downs, Westmoreland County Judge John Driscoll was down Wednesday afternoon.

He was down by about 5,000-6,000 votes, one half of 1 percent in a Superior Court race that saw Republican Susan Gantman pull ahead of him early yesterday.

Down, but not out, Gov. Ed Rendell cautioned the weary candidate in a personal phone call late yesterday afternoon.

Citing incomplete results in Philadelphia and yet-to-be included tallies from an absentee vote that added another 3,475 votes for Driscoll, Rendell insisted, as he had in several earlier calls, that it wasn't over yet. Rendell's instincts, honed in season after season of election contests, told him there were more votes out there.

Philadelphia election officials concurred. As of closing time yesterday, they confirmed there were at least several precincts yet to be counted.

Rendell speculated that the outstanding votes could push Driscoll over the top.

The 61-year-old Westmoreland County judge continued to battle Gantman throughout the day for third place in a race for three seats on the state appellate court bench.

If she holds her lead, Gantman, 51, a former Montgomery County prosecutor and the only woman on Tuesday's Superior Court ballot, will be the sole Republican elected in the battle to fill three seats on the court.

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Seamus McCaffery and Northampton County Judge Jack Panella, both Democrats, secured two of the three seats on the Superior Court well before midnight election day.

Added to Allegheny County Judge Max Baer's victory in the Supreme Court race, a Driscoll victory would make Democrats, who have lost 18 of the last 22 state court contests, four for four this year.

Back in the kitchen of his Hempfield Township home late yesterday afternoon, Driscoll offered thanks to various callers, juggling calls on a cell phone that was plugged in, recharging from hours of nonstop use.

Ann Driscoll, the candidate's wife, said three different phones rang intermittently throughout the day. In addition to Rendell, callers included the couples' five adult children, who are scatted from Germany to Chicago, old friends, well-wishers and campaign volunteers.

"It's so close it could come down to those 937 absentee ballots that are under seal in Allegheny County. That's not out of the realm of possibility," said attorney Mike Ferguson, Driscoll's local campaign coordinator.

As of 5 p.m. yesterday, state election officials said a handful of precincts remained outstanding throughout the state. But Pennsylvania Department of State spokesman Brian McDonald said officials weren't sure exactly how many precincts or where.

Democratic Committee spokesman Ken Snyder said nailing down specifics was nearly impossible. Answers changed with each question.

"It's very frustrating. I don't think we're going to know for a couple of days," he said.

Sleepy and hoarse, Driscoll, a former Westmoreland County district attorney and an unsuccessful Superior Court candidate in the 1997 primary, marveled at the narrow margins that separated him from Gantman.

"I'm proud of what we've done, and I'd like to stay in it and make sure all the votes are counted," he said.

"I said all along it would be very close. ... But I think the court will be well served by whomever the voters elect," Driscoll said.

Party operatives, meanwhile, speculated on the likelihood of challenges to the vote.

"If the margin remains where it is, whether Driscoll is up or down, I think you can expect a recount," Snyder said.

Chad Saylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Republican Committee, said it was too early to say what moves Gantman or her supporters may take if she loses her lead.

"We're still monitoring the race closely. We realize that there's still some precincts remaining to be counted out there, so it's really too early at this point to say what we may do," Saylor said.

"The main objective right now is getting all the votes tabulated, and then we'll proceed from there."

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