Video: Rendell, Casey on Obama-Clinton battle

updated 4/15/2008 4:24:35 AM ET 2008-04-15T08:24:35

Edward G. Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, demonstrated his value to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton last weekend, helping her quickly devise a strategy to counter and exploit remarks by Senator Barack Obama.

When Mr. Obama provided an opening by saying that small-town voters in Pennsylvania facing hard economic times “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” to explain their frustrations, Mr. Rendell was ready to pounce.

He instantly mobilized his political machinery, organizing many mayors in Pennsylvania to speak on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf and to hold rallies. He also suggested that she reshuffle her schedule to visit Scranton, where her father grew up and where, in a hastily arranged visit on Sunday, she highlighted her link with small-town Pennsylvania.

But Mr. Rendell could not actually speak with Mrs. Clinton, in part because he was consumed with the intricate task of negotiating with others to map out her final week before the state’s primary next Tuesday — deciding who gets to see the candidate, and who does not.

Few presidential candidates have ever had the benefit of a local promoter like Mr. Rendell, who before being elected governor was the mayor of Philadelphia. He is campaigning as vigorously for Mrs. Clinton’s election as he would for his own, and constantly talking her up with remarks that, alas, sometimes go off message. (On Monday, he shrugged off the impact of Mr. Obama’s comments. “It will cost a couple of points at the margin, but it won’t be a sea-changer,” the governor said.)

But Mr. Rendell is at the ready. He helps craft Mrs. Clinton’s messages, escort her around the state and introduce her at events. He has enlisted his fund-raisers to assist her, ginned up endorsements and coaxed some superdelegates into staying neutral until after the Pennsylvania primary. He has made commercials for her. He juggles state business and her political business with equal urgency — haggling over financing for a development project in Wilkes-Barre and an airport expansion in Erie one minute, calling in to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC the next.

His credibility as a local spokesman automatically vaulted him into the national spotlight.

“Every time I turn on the TV, I see you,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a leading supporter of Mr. Obama, told Mr. Rendell backstage recently at a Democratic dinner here in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Mrs. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, attended the same dinner. Ms. Clinton spoke briefly to the crowd, and when she said she was proud to be campaigning with Mr. Rendell, the audience whooped and hollered. “Well, gosh,” she said, looking slightly amazed. “I feel like I should just stop there.”

Blunt but useful
Mr. Rendell is redefining the role of political host, putting to shame the other Democratic governors who have endorsed either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama and have helped them navigate their states ahead of a primary or caucus.

And his bluntness frequently makes for good copy. For example, he told reporters in March that he would happily support a Clinton-Obama ticket or an Obama-Clinton ticket (“Either way,” he said). He said in a recent interview with The New York Times that the Clinton campaign had made some “God-awful decisions.” He also said that women had warmed up to her tremendously during the course of the campaign, after having initially considered her “an intellectually snobby feminist.”

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But with a three-decade record on the public stage, Mr. Rendell is seen as an undeniable asset to Mrs. Clinton, particularly in the Philadelphia media market, where 40 percent of the state’s voters live. He won re-election as governor in 2006 by a landslide 20 percentage points and generally gets good grades for sprucing up the reputation and finances of his Rust Belt state.

Even as he promotes Mrs. Clinton — she is the best prepared to be president, he says, and she “gets it” — Mr. Rendell is careful to keep the door open with Mr. Obama should she not succeed in winning her party’s presidential nomination.

In an interview in his ornate wood-carved office in Harrisburg, the governor referred to Mr. Obama several times in positive ways, as he did publicly at the Democratic dinner here. He frequently says he will “work my butt off” for Mr. Obama if Mr. Obama wins the nomination. His real ire is directed at the news media for “drinking the Kool-Aid” and not being tougher on Mr. Obama. “The press hates the Clintons,” he said in the interview. “No question about it.”

Clinton's Penn. lead shrinking
Mrs. Clinton, of New York, still maintains a lead in the polls here, but that lead was shrinking, at least before Mr. Obama, of Illinois, made his comments about small-town voters. Even Mr. Rendell had been revising downward his estimate of her margin of victory, to four percentage points from five — far lower than the double-digit lead that polls first suggested she held here.

If Mrs. Clinton does not win Pennsylvania, most agree, she cannot go on.

But if she does win, and by a healthy margin, Mr. Rendell, 64, who is in his second and final term as governor, will undoubtedly receive a good share of the credit — and perhaps some of the political spoils should she make it to the White House.

The Clinton administration delivered for Philadelphia when Mr. Rendell was mayor, providing help to revitalize the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and to put more cops on the streets, a program that Mrs. Clinton said last week she would revive. President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. Rendell’s wife, Marjorie O. Rendell, to the federal bench in 1994 and elevated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1997. He named Mr. Rendell chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 election.

Agling for vice president?
While some suggest that Mr. Rendell may be angling for vice president, he is an unlikely choice. A native New Yorker and a Jew, he would not expand Mrs. Clinton’s base. But he does not rule out interest in serving in her cabinet, after his term as governor ends in 2011.

They are clearly comfortable with each other; Mrs. Clinton seems to light up around Mr. Rendell and enjoy the game a bit more. Those who know him and Mr. Clinton say the two share many traits, like outsized personalities, a natural gift for politics and a love of the sport (and sports, or at least watching them on television).

As Mr. Rendell gripped a map of the state last week and pointed to yellow circles around the towns he wanted Mr. Clinton to visit, he laughed at the former president’s eagerness. “He’s a bear,” said Mr. Rendell, chuckling, as he planned a route through the hinterlands. “He always wants more. Hillary never asks for more, but Bill always asks for more.”

And the strategy in sending Mr. Clinton to these outposts? “Basically he goes to the places that nobody else goes to,” Mr. Rendell explained, “and it was apparently very effective in Texas.” A little chuckle at what was unsaid: That Mr. Clinton, like him, can wander off-message, but he draws big crowds in places that have never seen a former president.

Mr. Rendell was initially neutral in the race for the Democratic nomination, out of deference to two friends who were also candidates, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. After they dropped out, Mr. Rendell endorsed Mrs. Clinton, just before Feb. 5, when Delaware and New Jersey were among the states voting. Areas of both are in the Philadelphia media market.

Once Ohio and Texas breathed new life into Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy on March 4, the primary in Pennsylvania suddenly mattered. Mr. Rendell swung into action, but he insists that the time he is devoting to her cause has not cut in to his devotion to state business. He says he simply gets up earlier and goes to sleep later.

'Jumps in with both feet'
That consuming energy is part of what makes him an effective surrogate. “He jumps in with both feet,” said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, who first hired Mr. Rendell when Mr. Specter was Philadelphia’s district attorney in the 1970s. “He knows the territory. And he knows where the bodies are buried.”

Mr. Rendell describes himself as “the last of the Mohicans,” by which he means he is loyal to the end, even if the tide may look like it is going the other way

“Last of the Mohicans!” he said to Mr. Kennedy when they met here. It was a reminder that Mr. Rendell had stuck with Mr. Kennedy through his ill-fated bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980.

The governor had also given a lift to Senator John Kerry in 2004, when he was the party’s nominee. Now Mr. Kerry supports Mr. Obama, and he and Mr. Rendell recently squared off at a party event in Cumberland County.

“All the people I’ve worked hard for, I’m now opposing them on TV,” Mr. Rendell rued, sounding suddenly and uncharacteristically forlorn as he mulled Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. “I do feel like the last of the Mohicans. It’s me and Stephanie Tubbs.”

Ms. Tubbs, a representative from Ohio, is also visible in her support for Mrs. Clinton. “No disrespect to Stephanie,” he added.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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