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Key Endorsement: Rendell and the Clinton Campaign

The people who know Ed Rendell best aren’t surprised when he speaks his mind. But Rendell’s candor might have come as a shock to the Clinton campaign.

Take Friday, when Rendell – the Pennsylvania governor and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s top supporter in the state – told MSNBC that he thinks Sen. Barack Obama will carry Pennsylvania in the general election if he is the Democratic nominee for president.

That wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that Rendell has gone off message. Earlier this month, when Clinton was pushing the idea that Obama could be her running mate, Rendell said he liked the idea – but also liked the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket. He also said some conservative white voters in Pennsylvania would not support a black candidate, and complained to The New York Times that Clinton was without a game plan after Super Tuesday.

“He says what’s on his mind,” said David Cohen, Rendell’s chief of staff when he was mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of his first gubernatorial campaign. “If you ask him a question, you’ll get an honest answer.”

For the Clinton campaign, what Rendell may cost in candor he makes up for in charisma and connections. The two-term governor — a tough campaigner, an accomplished fund-raiser and popular public figure for three decades – is central to their efforts in Pennsylvania, where a victory in the April 22 primary is key to Clinton’s hopes of claiming the Democratic nomination.

This primary season has already seen other governors play important roles. Gov. Charlie J. Crist (R-Fla.) was credited with helping Sen. John McCain win the Republican primary there, and Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) waged an energetic campaign on Clinton’s behalf.

Rendell himself has downplayed the importance of a simple endorsement. “I don’t believe there’s any magic to having a governor endorse,” he told reporters in a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign on Thursday. But he said he would travel across the state, talking to voters “as grown ups” about why he thinks Clinton is the best choice for Democrats, highlighting her positions on the economy, health care and green-collar jobs.

Rendell has had a long friendship with Bill J. Clinton, and showed him around Philadelphia in 1992, when he was the Democratic presidential candidate. This year, several close Rendell associates have joined Hillary Clinton’s Pennsylvania campaign team and Rendell has been in frequent touch with mayors, county commissioners and state legislators on her behalf. “I think I’ve been helpful in getting them to sign on board for the Clinton campaign,” Rendell said.

Cohen, now an executive at Comcast – the cable operator where Rendell is a popular commentator on the Philadelphia Eagles post-game show – said Rendell continues to draw on the field operation he built as mayor of Philadelphia, a job he held from 1991-1999. “We haven’t let the political apparatus that he once controlled atrophy,” Cohen said.

As mayor and governor, Rendell also built personal relationships across the state, including, Cohen said, with 250 mayors. Such ties will be especially useful in getting voters to go to the polls, he added. “We were always much better at turning out our vote than the people we were running against,” Cohen said. “The political machine that was deployed for Ed Rendell will be deployed for the benefit of Hillary Clinton."

Rendell, a native New Yorker, attended college and law school in Philadelphia and never left. He worked as a prosecutor for Arlen Specter — a Republican who is now the state’s senior U.S. senator — when Specter was Philadelphia’s district attorney. Rendell was elected to that post himself at just 33 years old. He failed in a 1986 bid to become governor, and also in his first race for mayor, but was elected to City Hall in 1991, and became well known and well liked. "Brash, energetic, cheerful, rumpled and a big sports fan," is how "The Almanac of American Politics" describes him.

In his runs for governor, Rendell drew strong support not just from Philadelphia, but also from the surrounding suburbs, which together are home to about 40 percent of the state’s voters.

“When he was mayor, he was really mayor of the region,” said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and a longtime observer of Pennsylvania politics. Madonna pointed to Rendell’s tough negotiations with city unions and his work on downtown redevelopment, which, he said, “made it not just possible, but fashionable, to come back to the city for restaurants and shows.”

But in the Democratic primary, “Rendell’s turf and Obama’s turf is the same,” Madonna said, explaining that he expects Obama to do well among the upscale, college-educated suburban voters who have supported Rendell in the past. At the same time, the African-American voters in Philadelphia who have supported Rendell strongly in the past may be tempted to back Obama.

While the Obama campaign has tried to minimize expectations for its performance in Pennsylvania, Madonna sees a way he could win here, or at least hold down her margin of victory. The blueprint is based on Rendell’s upset victory in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary fight with Bob Casey – now a US senator.

In that contest, Rendell concentrated his efforts, losing 57 of 67 counties, but winning big, vote-rich areas. He captured the swing vote, including the Lehigh Valley and much of the southcentral part of the state. And, as Cohen underscored, he used his machine to turn out his voters.

“Measured against Rendell’s 2002 template, Obama’s chances are not unpromising,” Madonna wrote this week.

That’s why Rendell is borrowing a page from what he learned when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 election. He recalled how he traveled the country then, taking out his yellow pad and pen on plane trips and car rides, always playing with the math – and the map — to see how Al Gore could get the 270 electoral votes he needed.

His challenge now is to seeing how he can deliver enough of this large state – part rural, part urban, with, as he puts it, a “Midwestern tinge” on one side, and an “East Coast tinge” on the other – to Clinton. That includes the northeastern part of the state – Clinton’s father’s hometown was Scranton — and the southwest, where rural and working-class voters make up a large segment of the Democratic base.

In all corners of the state, they are voters who are accustomed to hearing their governor speak his mind. “We have an expression: ‘That’s Ed being Ed’,” Madonna said. “He always gets in a lot of situations, which he always manages to get out of.”

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