HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Ed Rendell has raised taxes, greatly boosted state spending, even signed a huge legislative pay increase that cost over a dozen lawmakers their jobs. For other elected officials, that record might be pure poison.
But not for Rendell. For months he has stayed far out in front of his Republican challenger, Lynn Swann, the Hall of Fame football legend.
In fact, many GOP politicians are endorsing Rendell.
How has he done it?
Those who know the 62-year-old governor say it is a combination of traits: energy, an outsized, likable personality and the savvy of a politician who knows campaigns are not won by the swiftest of foot but by those who slowly, methodically earn political capital from voters. That has often involved making strategic use of state dollars to help Pennsylvania's struggling communities.
In St. Marys, a small town whose economy rises and falls with the powdered-metals industry, Republican Mayor Sally Geyer is backing the Democrat because of state money his administration has provided for such projects as an industrial park and a senior-citizen housing complex.
"Instead of putting the money into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, where everybody thought it would go, he's putting money into small rural towns," said Geyer, one of a dozen GOP mayors who have endorsed Rendell.
In Clearfield County, near the middle of the state, the administration has approved nearly $18 million in grants, loans and tax credits for a pair of planned ethanol plants that are competing to be the first in Pennsylvania.
Not surprisingly, Rendell can count on support from Rob Swales, director of the Clearfield County Economic Development Corporation — and also a Republican.
Along the New Jersey line 50 miles north of Philadelphia, the city of Easton has received millions in state grants for downtown redevelopment and other projects.
Republican Mayor Philip B. Mitman's choice for mayor? Rendell.
He "knows in his heart what is right for the cities," Mitman said. "You know he's not a phony. He can look you in the eye and eat breakfast with you. He can talk the talk, but he can also walk the walk."
During his two terms as mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell stood up to the powerful municipal unions and forced contract concessions that helped rescue the city from financial ruin. Strong support from the Republican-dominated counties surrounding the city were instrumental in electing Rendell governor in 2002.
As governor, through often-acrimonious negotiations with leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature, Rendell has signed bills fulfilling major campaign promises and delivering on pet GOP proposals, too. Republican support for controversial items, such as the legalization of slot-machine gambling and the short-lived pay raises, has helped inoculate him against Swann's criticism.
"He's always comfortable, always the same, and never threatened by other people's success. He's a winner who wants everyone else to win, too," former President Clinton, who secured Rendell's yearlong stint as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2000, said via e-mail.
Swann, 54, a political newcomer who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, won four Super Bowl rings and made a career as a sideline analyst for ABC Sports, has trailed Rendell by double digits since the May primary. A statewide poll released Monday showed Rendell leading by 25 points among likely voters.
Swann's campaign contends Rendell's big edge in fundraising — he has collected about $30 million through Monday, compared with $10 million for Swann — has allowed him to gloss over the $1 billion-plus tax increases he signed in 2003 and other shortcomings because he can afford to dominate the TV advertising war.
"From our perspective, it all comes down to money," said Swann campaign spokesman Leonardo Alcivar.
Bolstering Rendell's campaign efforts is a prolific public-relations team in the governor's office that has issued hundreds of news releases this year chronicling virtually every Rendell action and announcement. Most never become statewide news — the announcement of student winners in an anti-tobacco video contest, for example — but many reach targeted audiences or regions of the state.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who as Philadelphia district attorney in the late 1960s gave Rendell his first job as a prosecutor, supports Swann for governor but remains friendly with Rendell.
"I don't think he's lucky. I think he's made his own good luck," Specter said.
Friends outside politics are less restrained in sizing up Rendell, who during football season moonlights on the Comcast cable network as a post-game commentator for the Philadelphia Eagles. He donates his salary to charity.
"He's an excellent communicator and he has boundless energy. ... His off-hours are the wee hours of the morning," said David Montgomery, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia Phillies, who met Rendell while both were students at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rendell met his wife, Midge — now a federal appeals court judge — when Montgomery took her as his date to a party at Rendell's house. Rendell called her the next morning. But "he was kind enough to call me first," Montgomery said.