Bill George can't believe his luck. Suddenly, the head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO labor union federation finds himself courted by both Democratic presidential candidates' campaigns.
Ultimately, he says, the winner is working class Americans, and he's in no hurry to endorse either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, as long as they are both talking about health care, trade policy and other issues of his members' concern.
"I'm holding them to the fire trying to get them to have more discussions about the resolve of those issues," said George, a Democratic superdelegate whose organization has 900,000 members in the state.
Pennsylvania's political power players, who watched in many past presidential elections as early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire typically got much of the attention from candidates and the media, are suddenly in the spotlight — at least on the Democratic side.
The state is the next big battleground because on April 22 it will apportion 158 delegates, the biggest remaining prize, among candidates based on their relative support.
As the two candidates crisscross the state for the next six weeks, there are a number of players to watch who could make a difference behind the scenes and in front of the camera leading up to election. They include:
- Gov. Ed Rendell, the outspoken former Philadelphia mayor who later served as DNC chairman, is aggressively campaigning for Clinton. Popular in Philadelphia, where he was credited with the city's renaissance in the '90s, he could help Clinton snag votes in the state's populous southeast and with fundraising.
- Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, elected on a promise to reform city hall, has endorsed Clinton as a pledged delegate to the national nominating convention this summer. Elected last year, he isn't as established as Rendell. Yet Nutter, who is black, could help Clinton among black voters in the city of about 1.5 million people.
- U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, also from Philadelphia, is the only black member of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation. He's backing Obama and could help solidify his support among black voters.
- One key Philadelphia endorsement up for grabs is that of Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic committee. The once powerful machine is not what it used to be, but still has some influence. On Friday, after hearing arguments from former President Clinton on behalf of his wife and from Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, on Obama's behalf, ward leaders on the committee said they wanted to hear directly from each candidate before making a decision. Brady said he'll back the candidate the committee endorses. A decision will be made before the primary.
- In suburban Philadelphia, Clinton is backed by Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the only woman to represent the state in Congress, and Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral. Murphy, who represents a Philadelphia and suburban district, has endorsed Obama. The three could help with fundraising and in attracting some voters.
- In western Pennsylvania, a key endorsement would be that of Rep. John Murtha. Murtha, a leading critic of the Iraq war and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is a prolific fundraiser and his endorsement could help attract anti-war voters. Murtha has said he has not decided whether he will endorse before the primary.
- In the Pittsburgh area, Dan Onorato, the chief executive of Allegheny County, population 1.2 million, announced his support for Clinton on Friday. Onorato is a moderate Democrat mentioned as a future gubernatorial candidate, and his endorsement could have impact among the region's urban and suburban voters.
- Actively courted by the two candidates, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl also announced Friday he's supporting Clinton. At 28, Ravenstahl is the youngest chief executive of a major U.S. city. Last year, he was elected to finish out the two-year term of the late Bob O'Connor, whom he was appointed to replace in 2006. While Ravenstahl's endorsement could help some, he has not had much time to establish himself.
- Sen. Bob Casey has said he won't endorse a candidate before the primary because he's worried about party unity. But the son of the late former governor could have pull behind the scenes. Both Clinton and Obama campaigned for him in his successful 2006 race against Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
- State Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney has endorsed Clinton.
- In fundraising circles, Obama has the support of Peter Buttenweiser, an investment banking heir in Philadelphia who is one of the nation's biggest contributors to Democratic candidates. He's also helped by Mark Alderman, a Philadelphia lawyer and fundraiser. Alan Kessler and Mark Aronchick are both Philadelphia lawyers and fundraisers for Clinton.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, who represents Pittsburgh, is popular in his district, and could have some influence if he decided to endorse before the primary. That's true also of Rep. Tim Holden in south-central Pennsylvania.
Doyle said he's remaining uncommitted, at least for now, because he wants to be able to help unite the party and bring the factions together when it's all said and done.
"It's not going to be the Barack and Hillary people who bring the factions together," Doyle said. "It's going to be those of us who are still seen as neutral and have some standing in the party."