In the summer of 2004, Lynn Swann stood on a sweltering stage in front of several thousand party faithful in Latrobe. Stalling for a delayed President Bush, he joked that wouldn't he and Latrobe native Arnold Palmer, standing to his right, “make the perfect ticket for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006?”
The response was deafeningly positive.
Three summers and one failed attempt at governor later, according to a variety of inside sources Swann is contemplating another run for office, in a considerably less dramatic fashion.
Swann, who lost to Gov. Ed Rendell last year, now has an eye on Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District.
Despite his rookie status and less-than-stellar campaign, he was the only Republican to win the 4th District in 2006 -- which is part of the reason why U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart are now referred to as “former.”
If he decides to run, he would take on freshman congressman and Democrat Jason Altmire of McCandless.
Swann's first decision-making hurdle is whether he wants to go to Washington or to stick around Pennsylvania and run for governor again. His second hurdle is the congressional seat’s former occupant, Melissa Hart, who is coy about whether she wants to take back her seat. Look for her to run a poll to test the waters of her electability.
Most insiders not-so-quietly agree that Hart gave up her seat to Jason Altmire; in a horrible year for Republicans, she allowed Altmire to define her as a clone of President Bush and Santorum. Failing to draw a contrast, refusing to respond with accurate information about who he was and why Altmire would be wrong for the district, Hart gave it away in the end.
Soured by the outcome of that particular campaign, GOP stakeholders in Washington have turned to Swann as a candidate who could win back the district.
For its part, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is just as invested in retaining Altmire's services as congressman. It made him a member of its aggressive Frontline program, which is dedicated to spending resources on "purple" House seats, districts that could swing for either party.
Experts on both sides agree a Swann-Altmire race would cost $3 million to $5 million in candidate and party money, ranking it in the top five House races for 2008.
Thanks to a political-climate change, Altmire got a bit of a free ride the last time. But he has wisely positioned himself, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly, as the sixth most conservative Democrat in the House, a good fit for the district.
To really stake out that seat as his, he must pick one big policy item and get it passed in the House, something perhaps dealing with health care or veterans issues.
Swann has a couple important things on his side -- an ability to raise cash and perfect name identification. Yet he has more obstacles to overcome. He has to prove to voters that he has learned a heck of a lot since 2006. Forget the buses with his image shrink-wrapped on them; this is about handshakes, a total bone-up on local issues and establishing an early, clear definition of his positions on the Iraq war, Social Security and federal spending.
Swann is in a party where the brand has been shredded. He is tied to an unpopular president and may be running for office in a Congress that has a 14 percent approval rating.
If he jumps into the race, he must get beyond running uphill and run as though the seat was open by characterizing Altmire as just a default winner in 2006.
One of the hardest things a congressional challenger running against an incumbent must do is to convince people they made an error in the last election.
But that must be the agenda for any Republican Party candidate trying to retake the House.