Rise and Fall of the GOP in Pennsylvania

THE Pennsylvania attorney general, the highest-ranking official elected to uphold the law, is stepping down in disgrace today for breaking it.

But the lack of political stir over Ernie Preate's admitted campaign corruption is a measure of the strength and momentum of Republicans here.

The GOP is on a roll in this state that is a powerhouse in national elections and will likely figure large in the 1996 presidential contest. Republicans control the governor's mansion, the state Senate, and, for the first time in a decade, the state House. More Republicans voted than Democrats last fall - the first time that's happened in 30 years. Last year's Republican primary was the most crowded in a generation.

With the state marching to an increasingly conservative drumbeat, Mr. Preate's departure is likely to have little fallout.

"The electorate by and large is not going to associate the GOP with the problems of the Preate administration," says Michael Young, director of the Center for Survey Research at Penn State University at Harrisburg.

Preate pleaded guilty last week to a felony charge for mail fraud. The case stems from 1987 when Preate needed to retire campaign debts and build a war chest to run for attorney general. According to federal prosecutors, 19 video-poker operators gave him $40,000 in campaign contributions, half of which was illegal. Preate made it appear the cash came from other contributors. He could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The irony is not lost on Democrats. As the state's top enforcement officer, Preate was supposed to prosecute such campaign fraud. The affair offers Philadelphia attorney Joseph Kohn, who was Preate's Democratic opponent in 1992, an advantage for his planned 1996 campaign for the office.

Despite Mr. Kohn's likely strong position in the attorney general's race, Republicans are stepping up to run for many other offices. "I have not seen [a] flood of candidates," says Joe King, executive director of the GOP State Committee. But "we're obviously starting to see a lot of people getting involved in the party, wanting to run for local office."

"The hit on Republicans is that they often don't put up as good a candidate" as Democrats, says Professor Young. Quality candidates were hard to attract in many Democratic strongholds because the prospects for winning were so low. "Now, the prospects look very good. It's a very encouraging time and climate to run."

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