NEW YORK – Across politically polarized Pennsylvania, it takes a lot to convince predominantly Republican suburbanites, townies and country folk to elect as governor a former Democratic mayor of the city they love to hate.
But if recent polls are any indication, even die-hard Republicans are beginning to believe that Ed Rendell, the popular former two-term mayor of Philadelphia, is a better candidate for the job than his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Mike Fisher.
"[Rendell] is genuinely a nice guy who really cares about the big picture and about everyone," said registered Republican Patricia Rabii, 60, who plans to vote for Rendell. "That’s rare today. He’s an excellent leader."
Miller University’s Keystone Poll shows Rendell with a steady lead of about 15 points over Fisher. Internal Fisher campaign polls show a margin of about 10 percent.
"Polls are polls -- you don't run a campaign based on whether you're up or down," said Kevin Harley, Fisher's press secretary. "You stay to the strategy in getting your message out to your voters. We believe Ed Rendell is too liberal for Pennsylvania."
"I’m not overly impressed by the polls either," Rendell told Foxnews.com from the campaign trail. "We’re not saying we’re ahead. We’re not going to sit on the ball. I’m going to keep working as hard as I can."
Still, the poll results are making waves in the media and among constituents -- especially since Rendell was once pegged as having little chance of even taking the primary against Robert Casey Jr., son of the former governor.
The figures, released earlier this month, have also come as a surprise to GOP Party members, who had seen Fisher gaining on his opponent after he helped thwart the sale last month of Hershey Foods, based in Hershey, Pa.
Some analysts say Rendell is a hit with voters because of his guy-next-door charisma and dogged, face-to-face campaigning style.
"I told people right from the start he was formidable and would win the race," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, which conducts the Keystone Poll. "Rendell was out in every small town like a rock star, being Rendell. He just took the state by storm."
Rendell himself takes pride in his leadership and credits it as the key to voter responsiveness.
"I’m viewed as a strong, experienced leader with a record of success in battling difficult problems," he said. "That’s what people want."
Rendell is seen as the shepherd of Philadelphia's metamorphosis during his tenure as mayor between 1992 and 2000. He has frequently been compared to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"He took a city on the verge of collapse and fiscal bankruptcy and turned it around," Madonna said.
Both candidates have made education and the economy top election issues. Rendell, head of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election gridlock, said he also wants a statewide prescription drug plan to help the concentration of poor and elderly in the state.
Fisher has pushed for more funding toward early childhood education plus significant tax cuts.
But Fisher's challenge, many say, is not with the issues, but with the charisma factor. Several GOP voters said they wished the well-liked current Gov. Mark Schweiker, who made headlines during the rescue of nine coal miners in Somerset, Pa., earlier this year, were running instead.
Schweiker, who took over when Tom Ridge left to become President Bush’s homeland security director, has said all along that he wouldn’t run for the seat.
One conservative talk show host in Philadelphia made headlines Thursday by joking that the GOP should swap Fisher for Schweiker, the way New Jersey Democrats switched candidate Sen. Robert Torricelli for former Sen. Frank Lautenberg just last week.
The Fisher camp says it's unfazed by the talk of candidate trading and poll-slipping.
"We believe there’s a ton of room for Mike Fisher to grow as his message gets out, and we’re seeing that growth every day," said campaign manager Kent Gates.
Fisher also may benefit from a successful record as a state official and the commitment of some GOP voters who refuse to cross party lines.
"I hear Fisher is kind of goofy," said 58-year-old Rich Cribbs of Lower Burrell, Pa. "He’s not very charismatic and brings nothing to the fight. I just hate Democrats."
"He has done some good work in the attorney general’s office," said one politically-connected voter in Harrisburg who asked not to be named. "He’s going to genuinely take care of what the constituents need."
But that same voter predicts Rendell, a self-defined social liberal and fiscal conservative, will take the race.
"Ed Rendell understands he needs to appeal to the centrist population of the state, and I think he’s going to have a comfortable win," he said. "Ed Rendell is the kind of guy who can be your buddy. Fisher doesn’t strike you that way at all."