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Close Calls in Pa.’s 13th District

The Democratic primary race to succeed Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) in the suburban Philadelphia 13th district is speeding to a furious finish, as party leaders and strategists anxiously await the selection of their nominee in what is expected to be one of the more competitive open-seat contests this cycle.

The highly visible contest features two well-funded, well-qualified, well-liked candidates in state Sen. Allyson Schwartz and former National Constitution Center President Joe Torsella.

The winner of the nomination will face either wealthy ophthalmologist Melissa Brown or state Rep. Ellen Bard, who are mired in a nasty primary battle on the Republican side.

While some strategists view the race as largely Schwartz’s to lose, there is still little evidence that Torsella, aided by the powerful network of Gov. Ed Rendell (D), is willing to cede an inch of ground before the April 27 primary.

The race to this point has largely been characterized by money — large amounts of it. Torsella and Schwartz entered the race last fall and got off to a furious fundraising start with the help of some key constituencies.

Torsella, a former aide to then-Philadelphia Mayor Rendell, has some key establishment support including some of the governor’s top allies, even as Rendell is staying publicly neutral in the race. Torsella helped raise $175 million in private and public funds as head of the National Constitution Center, a position to which he was appointed by Rendell.

Schwartz, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2000, is being heavily supported by organized labor (she got the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO), as well as EMILY’s List, the organization devoted to helping elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

“It’s going to be a close election,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler. “I think it’s an election where money is really going to make the difference.”

Ceisler said that Schwartz, despite carrying some residency baggage after moving into the district to run, otherwise has many of the advantages of incumbency in the race.

“Allyson Schwartz, even though she didn’t live in this district, really is the incumbent in this race,” Ceisler said, noting her name identification advantage in the Philadelphia market, her previous statewide run and her “moderate to liberal” legislative record in Harrisburg.

Schwartz carried the 13th district by a solid margin in the 2000 primary.

Torsella, on the other hand, has never run for office. In order to boost his name ID, he went up with ads on Feb. 26, a full three weeks before Schwartz did.

Around the same time that Schwartz began advertising, an independent poll showed the race in a statistical dead heat, with Torsella leading Schwartz among likely voters, 32 percent to 31 percent. The poll, which appeared to back up the findings of a Torsella campaign survey, also found that Torsella was less well-known than Schwartz.

Polling for the Schwartz campaign has shown her with a considerable lead in the race.

Torsella has since pulled ads off network TV but remains up on cable stations, leading some observers to question whether he has the finances to sustain the level of advertising needed for his message to break through in the campaign’s final weeks.

“From what I see and hear, he’s not going to have the money,” Ceisler said.

He added that if the money was there, “I would say that Torsella was in a position to win the race. But I don’t believe he has the money right now.”

A spokesman for Torsella shot down the notion that the campaign is not in a strong cash position and asserted that he will have the resources for “a strong media presence and a strong field operation to be competitive.”

“We’ve had a great quarter and we’re definitely going to be strong in these last couple of weeks,” said Anuj Gupta.

Torsella’s campaign is not releasing any early estimates before pre-primary fundraising reports are due at the FEC next week.

Schwartz, meanwhile, is expected to report raising $700,000 in the first quarter of the year, bringing her overall fundraising total for the race to $1.7 million. She finished 2003 with $848,000 on hand.

Torsella started the year with $583,000 in the bank, after raising $705,000 since entering the race in October.

“I think that Torsella needed to do more early fundraising to get up on TV sooner to set the terms of debate in his favor,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist Mark Nevins. “I don’t know that he’s been able to do that. Money is coming in for Torsella now, but it didn’t come in early enough.”

There is also speculation that Torsella may look to go negative on Schwartz before the campaign is over.

“When he decided to run for Congress Joe wanted to make this an issues-based campaign,” Gupta said, in an attempt to dispel the speculation. “That’s what it’s been and that’s what it will be.”

Money and advertising aside, the Election Day operations of both campaigns will be key in the Democratic race.

“Philadelphia is famous for street money and getting out the vote,” Ceisler said.

With few other contested races on the ballot, low Democratic turnout is expected, making each campaign’s field efforts all the more important.

While Torsella has the endorsement of the Democratic ward leaders in the city’s Northeast section and some labor union support, Schwartz’s field organization is getting help from EMILY’s List “Women Vote” grassroots turnout operation.

“We have a great get out the vote effort,” said Schwartz campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Kirszner. “We have 22 labor unions behind us, from the firefighters to the teachers.”

This week Schwartz also got the endorsement of the 21st Century Democrats, and the group will provide her campaign with an experienced field person on the ground.

“The way that Torsella was going to have to win this race was to take it off the ground and put it on the air,” said Nevins. “And I’m not sure he was able to do that. You can’t buy a grassroots organization and Schwartz has one and he doesn’t.”

Still, no one believes Schwartz can expect to coast to victory.

“The bottom line though is that Torsella is still a very appealing candidate,” Nevins said.

Torsella’s endorsement of the week came from the Philadelphia Daily News, which praised his political skills and specific ideas, calling Schwartz “vague on solutions.”

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, ophthalmologist Brown enjoys some of the same incumbent-like advantages in the Republican race.

This is Brown’s third attempt to win a seat in Congress, and last cycle she held Hoeffel to a closer-than-anticipated 51 to 47 percent margin after spending freely from her own pocketbook.

Brown was the early favorite to win the nomination and she still enjoys broad establishment support. However, Bard was able to score the backing of the Montgomery County GOP, the area where most of the Republican votes come from in the district.

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