Salena Zito

Could Pennsylvania be the keystone to the vice presidency?

Both Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell are reported as in the hunt to be on the national tickets of their parties’ presidential nominees. Ridge is Pennsylvania’s former two-term Republican governor and one-time national homeland security director; Rendell is now in his second term as the state’s Democrat governor.

Both are very popular in their own rights -- and very effective politicians. Yet they have never met on a political battleground.

But what if their parties’ nominees were to pick them as their wingmen?

“It would be the dramatic match-up that Pennsylvanians never got to see,” says GOP political strategist John Brabender.

Brabender gives an ever-so-slight edge to Ridge, based on his national experience, but says Rendell’s turn as head of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 recount and his stunning barnstorming for Clinton in Pennsylvania in April probably keeps that edge slim.

“Rendell’s strong suit is his likability factor and his ability to be extremely quick on his feet,” he says. “He does it in a way that is clearly not scripted. Whatever he says is truly what he believes.”

Brabender says Rendell is not someone you manage, who says whatever he thinks, and that might deter Barack Obama from picking him -- “which would be unfortunate, because Rendell is a brilliant politician.”

Rendell passed on a race against Ridge in 1998, instead heading off to the DNC. For his part, Ridge went out of his way to avoid political contact with the man then known as “America’s Mayor.”

But destiny may finally bring them face to face as opponents.

So why would Barack Obama pick Ed Rendell? Well, since Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland scratched himself off the list and since Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s blunt comments about Confederate viewpoints eliminate him, Obama needs to snag a leader who can bring victory in a critical swing state.

Enter Rendell, who brings effective campaign skills, unparalleled Clinton loyalty, no Washington-Beltway baggage and the experience to help Obama win and govern.

And why would John McCain pick Tom Ridge?

At first blush, you really do have to wonder, because McCain already has trouble with conservatives -- and pro-choice Republican Ridge could compound that problem.

Brabender says Ridge can counter that with reasonable youth (not too old or too young, important in a McCain running mate), a strong national image and a record arguably good enough to be vice president (or even president).

Both men would be assets to their tickets and would put the spotlight on Pennsylvania -- making a tough choice for Pennsylvania voters who already will be under the battleground microscope.

The political-entertainment value alone would be spectacular: Ridge would carry Western Pennsylvania and likely the Northeast, which McCain needs to win, and he can help in the Southeast suburbs and exurbs; Rendell can do what Rendell does best -- rack up numbers in the 10 Southeast counties he won in 2002’s Democrat primary and general election.

“It is astounding to think that Rendell lost 57 out of 67 counties in 2002 but still won the election by 9 points,” Brabender says.

Rendell ran up numbers in the Democrats’ primary that year that were just staggering: 79 percent in Philadelphia County, 80 percent in the other Philly “collar” counties. The high-water mark was Montgomery County, at nearly 89 percent.

The Obama organization has more than an upper hand for the fall in the state: Because of Pennsylvania’s hard-fought primary, it already has unparalleled field-work experience in the state, while the state Republican Party is basically demoralized after losing one U.S. senator and four congressmen in the 2006 midterm election.

Yet Ridge is the one who can nail down Reagan Democrats, most recently known as “Hillocrats” in the Keystone State. If he can add independents and modern swing voters to his side, his influence could edge Rendell’s in the end.

Like most speculation, the likelihood of both being picked -- or the question of who can bring home the vote for his party -- is completely unpredictable.

Then again, who could have predicted that Pennsylvania would have had such a booming voice in this year’s Democrat primary?


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.