IN just one month, Pennsylvania has turned a sleepy US Senate race into a sizzler.An unknown liberal Democrat has moved to virtual parity in the polls with his much better-known and conservative Republican opponent. Pennsylvania is hosting the nation's only Senate contest this year. Strategists from both parties will be paying close attention to tomorrow's results. "It's a barn-burner in progress," says Michael Young, a professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University at Harrisburg. Should the Democrat win, "it would be an incredible upset."
Political novice The Democrat in this case is Sen. Harris Wofford, a civil-rights activist, onetime special assistant to President Kennedy, former president of Bryn Mawr College, and, until recently, Pennsylvania's secretary of industry and labor. The state's Democratic governor appointed Mr. Wofford to the Senate in May following the death of Sen. John Heinz (R) in a plane crash. Wofford has never run for elective office before. His opponent is Dick Thornburgh, who served two terms as Pennsylvania governor and was, until recently, United States attorney general. Much better known than Wofford, and a more experienced campaigner, Mr. Thornburgh led in the polls by as much as 40 points this summer. Until last month, he held at least a 25-point edge. Then, something happened. According to three polls released this past week, Wofford has climbed to within at least 3 percentage points of Thornburgh. The gap is within the polls' margins of error. Republicans claim their internal polls show that Thornburgh continues to hold a 12-point lead. Nevertheless, Wofford clearly has the momentum. Both candidates spent the last weekend of the campaign traveling the state and buying an estimated $1 million each in political advertising. A come-from-behind victory for the Democrats would have national implications. First, it makes it harder for Republicans to win a majority in the Senate in 1992. The late Senator Heinz was a Republican; the GOP is counting on Thornburgh to hold the seat for the party. Second, the Pennsylvania election suggests that voters are vitally interested in domestic issues and willing to embrace Democratic solutions, according to several political analysts here. Democrats are ecstatic. "Wofford is going to win," says Doc Sweitzer, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia. "I would not be surprised if he wins big." "It's a window on 1992," says Jeff Eller, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington. "Even if we don't win this race, we now know that domestic, economic, health-care, taking-care-of-your-own issues grabbed the voters' attention.... It's a much different political environment in 1991 than it has ever been before."
Wofford's issues The key to Wofford's momentum is his call for national health insurance, Democratic strategists say. The campaign has hammered home the theme in its political advertising and on the stump. The health-care issue is a symbol of the larger Wofford strategy: Aim Democratic themes at the middle-class while downplaying aid to the poor. In the 1970s and '80s, when a Democrat talked about the need for higher education funding, voters perceived the issue as helping poor people, says Mr. Sweitzer. "Now, when you s ay it, it's helping everybody." Cutbacks in federal grants and higher tuition have made it harder for middle-income voters to afford to send their children to college. "The system doesn't work and everybody knows that. We are the poor," Sweitzer says. While Wofford has benefited from a good campaign, he also owes some of his success to his opponent's missteps. Thornburgh's press secretary made an off-color reference to the sorry state of Pennsylvania. And Thornburgh's campaign has been slow to react to Wofford initiatives: He released just last week his own health-care proposal and jobs plan. Instead of emphasizing his ideas for the future, the campaign has relied heavily on the ex-governor's record. "Thornburgh has not run a good campaign," Professor Young says. "And he has certainly not focused much on the things that he would do in the Senate." Also, while warm and folksy on the campaign trail, critics say Thornburgh is aloof behind the scenes. That aloofness may be a holdover from his first governor's race in 1978, when he upset a heavily favored Democrat and cleaned up Pennsylvania's scandal-ridden state politics.
Republicans alienated Those moves gave Thornburgh a clean-government aura, but it also alienated many Pennsylvania Republicans, who did not get even token political patronage from their new governor. "He had problems with a very closed staff structure, ... imperial decisionmaking, and an air that people owed their jobs to him," says David Buffington, editor of the Pennsylvania Report, a biweekly newsletter about Pennsylvania politics. This week's election hinges much more on political tactics than campaign themes, Mr. Buffington adds. "National health insurance wasn't an issue here three months ago and it won't be an issue three months from now," he says. "The lesson for the Democrats is that if they run an aggressive, well-financed campaign, they can beat a Republican."