Salena Zito

Pennsylvania voters were the center of the presidential political universe this year during both the Democratic primary and the general election.

Their concerns and culture allowed Hillary Clinton to get her groove back in the spring and, in the fall, became the battleground where John McCain made his last stand.

Now two key Pennsylvania races -- for a U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Arlen Specter, for an open seat for governor now held by Democrat Ed Rendell -- are up for grabs in 2010, although the jockeying already has begun.

Eight years ago, Pennsylvania had two Republican U.S. senators, Specter and Rick Santorum, with Republican Tom Ridge as governor. Its congressional delegation and state Legislature were also solidly GOP.

Since then, the governorship, one Senate seat and a majority of the congressional delegation have shifted to Democrats. The only thing left in GOP hands is the state Senate.

“Being out of power can be good for political parties,” says Rob Maranto, a former Villanova political scientist. “It forces you to work harder to figure out what you really need to focus on, as opposed to what is superfluous, and it forces you to find new and more capable leaders.”

In the U.S. Senate battle, Specter still feels the sting of his tough 2004 primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter won -- but by less than 2 percentage points. Toomey, now president of The Club for Growth, remains noncommittal about a rematch.

Chris Matthews, the anchor of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, tops the list of potential Democrat challengers; word is that he plans to decide in the early days of the new year. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Bucks County “Blue Dog” is considering a run; state Rep. Josh Shapiro, a rising Democrat star and Philadelphia-area reformer, also is rumored to be considering it.

“For the Dems, a lot hinges on Chris Matthews, who has name recognition but is a nonstop talker,” says Maranto. His guess is that the party’s favorite may end up being Josh Shapiro, if he can find a way to out-fund-raise Matthews: “In any event, if Specter is beaten in the Republican primary -- an outcome that is at least 50/50 -- this is likely to become a Democratic seat.”

Thanks to the state’s two-term limit, Rendell will leave an open governor’s seat.

Pennsylvanians have a long history of switching parties every eight years, which in theory gives Republicans an edge.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.