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The real battle for Pennsylvania is upon us

| Sunday, March 12, 2006

Politics is a blood sport. And the civic battlefield is littered with well-meaning citizens who decided to give elected office a shot.

Some were emboldened by a particular cause that was close to their hearts. Others were compelled to give back to society. And more than a few sought that rush that comes from being the person of the hour.

But the dark side of the business never gives the uninitiated a break. As President Reagan observed, "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."

Presidential biographer Richard Reeves, a keen observer of politics at the highest levels, believes that "a lot of history is just dirty politics cleaned up for the consumption of children and other innocents."

The 19th-century social commentator and essayist John Jay Chapman got straight to the point:

"Politics is organized hatred, that is unity," he stated.

And if you still have any doubt that politics is dirty, consider this comment from President Richard M. Nixon:

"I reject the cynical view that politics is a dirty business," stated the Watergate president.

That should clinch it for you; politics is a dirty business.

The broom cometh

In spite of all this, Pennsylvania's premier political activist group, Operation Clean Sweep, already has amassed nearly 100 candidates to help it achieve its declared goal of "defeating every single incumbent officeholder up for re-election in 2006."

This is the same organization that was instrumental in forcing the repeal of last year's legislative pay raise.

And if its Web site sounds like it believes some of these races will be akin to shooting fish in a barrel, who can blame them?

In Operation Clean Sweep's last big political foray, it turned out sitting state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro and nearly defeated Justice Sandra Schultz Newman. And those two were sort of running against themselves -- with no opponents in a retention vote.

Through a skillful and unprecedented use of the Internet and attention-grabbing media events, Operation Clean Sweep tapped a vein of voter anger that may or may not be sizzling still.

But this time around -- in the May primary and in the November general elections -- its cause will be met by real opponents, flesh-and-blood legislators hardened by the political battles of the past.

Tone & substance

At times, Operation Clean Sweep has had a less-than-civil tone when criticizing the state Legislature. Hey, it's America. But even if you think that tactic apropos, it does not bode well for well-mannered campaigns.

Name-calling and charges of near-criminal behavior beget more of the same. And dirty politics begets dirty politics.

The group's Web site -- PACleanSweep.com , a remarkably sophisticated site -- already has been countered by an opposition site, Uncleansweep.com . There are no pretensions at the new site that it is anything but a virtual howitzer aimed at Operation Clean Sweep's slate of candidates.

This is the big league. Personal lives, troubled children, errant spouses, ambitious brothers-in-law -- and anyone with a checkered past or who has merely stumbled -- are fair game in politics and have been since the beginning of the election process. Marital missteps and peccadilloes of any variety are sure to be spotlighted on the public stage.

Since the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in The New York Times v. Sullivan, it has been nearly impossible to defame a politician or public figure. Now that the Operation Clean Sweep candidates have declared, they are eligible to receive the personal scrutiny and abuse that the incumbents have dealt with for years.

This should not discourage fledgling politicians. But they do need to strap themselves to their saddles as they prepare to ride into battle.

It will make for some exciting trench warfare.

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