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Cui bono? (Who benefits?) Casey vs. Rendell, again

| Sunday, April 6, 2008

"You've got a friend in Pennsylvania" appeared on our license plates during the mid-1980s. It was not a very successful slogan even though there also was a promotional song of the exact name that was created to drill the words into our heads.

Still, the meaning of the phrase remained elusive. Was it a takeoff on the Carole King song "You've Got a Friend," which both she and James Taylor successfully recorded• There was a melancholy air to King's song, however, that made it an unlikely inspiration for any state's ad campaign.

Or could it have been a reference -- just a bit too oblique -- to Pennsylvania's Society of Friends• Our Quaker heritage (thanks to William Penn and the oats and oil businesses) has always served the commonwealth well. Yet it is hardly the stirring fare that could propel us into the industrial and technological future.

But in the lives of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there can be no doubt regarding the meaning of that decades-old ditty. Clinton has no better friend in Pennsylvania than Gov. Ed Rendell and Obama has no better friend here than Sen. Bob Casey.

Rendell has tirelessly worked every political gathering from one corner of the state to the next. And he is a true triple threat: the bear-hugging retail politics maven, the inside-politics operative and the glib and likeable point man in the national media.

Without Rendell, Clinton would not have much of a movement here.

Casey, the "spring surprise" in this primary, has provided a tour de force performance for Obama that gives the junior U.S. senator of Illinois much-needed street credibility across the state. From bowling alleys to fish fries to factory floors, Casey and Obama are campaigning the old-fashioned way. Without Casey, Obama would be alone in the crowd.

When Casey shed his "uncommitted" mantle for Obama, Pennsylvania once again became the accidental battlefield for a contest of national import. It is a classic Pennsylvania battle: two heavyweights -- Rendell and Casey -- squaring off one more time.

And as critical as this contest is on the national scene, the Rendell-Casey backstory is more tantalizing for the locals. These teams have met before. This Bob Casey's father and namesake -- the former governor of Pennsylvania -- founded the Casey political franchise, which often has locked horns with the Rendell wing of the party.

In 1986, Casey the Elder beat Rendell for the Democrats' nomination for governor. In 2002, Rendell beat Casey the Younger for the Democrats' gubernatorial nod. And then there was the 1992 Casey-Clinton standoff at the Democratic National Convention, which resulted in the elder Casey distancing himself from the national party apparatus forever.

Over the years, the center-lefts have battled the center-rights. Rendell has led with an attitude of "anything is possible if you follow me" -- charging up hills and slaying political dragons. The Caseys have maintained their cherished "outsiders" status -- while swinging and landing blows on the inside.

So, while this presidential primary is about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it is not all about them. A Clinton victory will mean that Rendell kept her alive for the next one and that is enough. A closer second place showing than expected will be a victory for Obama and Casey will deserve the credit for that.

The only remaining question then will be, as Cicero often asked: "Cui bono?" Who benefits• And the delightful answer to that is, Pennsylvania. If either of these Democrats ends up in the White House, there will always be a place at the table for one of ours.

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