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Pa.’s 17th District Primary Is Impossible to Predict

Three weeks before Pennsylvania’s primary, the crowded 17th district GOP race remains a wide-open free-for-all, characterized by the absence of polling data, media buys, enthusiasm from voters and, most notably, a clear frontrunner.

While a number of candidates have laid claim to the frontrunner title, there is little empirical or anecdotal evidence to suggest any one of the six Republicans vying for the chance to face Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) in November has broken out of the pack.

“It truly is an open field, in which one of several people can win,” said Terry Madonna, the director of the Keystone Poll at the Center For Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “In the end we’re just left, everybody with their palms up not knowing for sure what’s going to happen.”

The nominal leader in the race, attorney and former legislative aide Scott Paterno (R), has attained that status primarily because of his fundraising ability and the fact that he has a legendary last name in an area of the state where Penn State football is a second religion for many voters. Paterno is the youngest son of famed Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno, who has campaigned on his son’s behalf.

Scott Paterno raised an estimated $50,000 for his campaign at a Washington, D.C., event last month headlined by former President George H.W. Bush.

The younger Paterno, who was counseled by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) before deciding to move into the district to run, also has some key institutional support, including the backing of state Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill (R), his former boss. And he has garnered the endorsements of two county GOP committees in the sprawling Harrisburg-based district, which includes all of Dauphin, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties and portions of Berks and Perry counties.

Paterno’s celebrity standing in the race is bolstered by the fact that most of his primary opponents are now directing their attacks at him.

Still, independent analysts and party strategists note there remains little evidence of Paterno’s ability to translate his institutional support and famous last name into votes on April 27, although none doubt that he could end up the eventual nominee.

Aside from Paterno, former state Adjutant General Bill Lynch, Dauphin County Attorney Mark Stewart, Realtor Sue Helm, former Penn State football standout Ron Hostetler and retired accounting consultant Frank Ryan are squaring off in the winner-take-all primary later this month.

“In a way it almost does have the undertones of a statewide judicial race in Pennsylvania, where it’s quiet, quiet, quiet and then the last two weeks, whatever money there is, goes up on television to get name recognition,” said Al Neri, the editor of a nonpartisan statewide political newsletter. “It sort of has that feel to it.”

To this point, Lynch has been the only candidate to air television ads. His 30-second spot, focusing in part on his 38-year military career, is running only on cable stations. However, Lynch is not alone in his efforts to court the military vote. Ryan is also a retired Marine who served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Stewart is pegged as having a large base of institutional support, much of it in Dauphin County, the Republican anchor in the western reaches of the district. The former deputy attorney general scored the endorsement of the Dauphin County GOP in February and he also has the support of state Senate Majority Whip Jeff Piccola (R), also of Dauphin.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s campaign laid claim to the frontrunner status last week after he was targeted by an anonymous Web site set up to attack him on personal issues. Last August, a restraining order sought by Ryan’s former wife and records of unpaid child support from a messy 1993 divorce came to light.

“My strategic advisers have informed me that vicious, personal attacks are only waged against candidates with frontrunner status,” Ryan said in a news release. “The timing of this most recent attack, just one month before Republican voters go to the polls, leads me to believe that I’m doing much better in my opponents’ polling than they are comfortable with.”

No public polling has been released in the race. Madonna, who has conducted independent polling this cycle in the open 13th district race, said he has shied away from testing the field in the 17th because of the overall murky picture.

“I looked at it and said I don’t know what to make of this,” he said. “I honestly don’t know what to make of this.”

Madonna attributes the uncertainty to the diffusion of political strength that corresponds to the district’s expansive geography, factors that also help to give Paterno a leg up because of his higher-than-average name identification.

In a recent interview with the Centre Times, Coach Paterno drew a comparison to the Kennedys when asked whether his son was helped by his surname.

“I think they [Kennedys] were, obviously, talented people and they knew what they wanted to get done,” he said. “I think that Scott knows what he wants to get done. The only thing I do think is a benefit for him is that people open the door because his name is Paterno. And that’s fine, but once he steps in the door, he better have a message to deliver. That is up to him.”

Before his son entered the race, “JoePa” had given indications he would help Hostetler, a teacher and one-time star linebacker for the Penn State team in the 1970s. He is the brother of former NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler.

Paterno’s opponents have labeled him a résumé lightweight and charged that he is trying to coast to the nomination on his name alone. He has also been the target of anonymous fliers sent to Republicans across the district. They have focused on his weight and controversial columns he wrote in college in which he accused former President Bill Clinton of murder of advocated the legalization of drugs.

Paterno has since made all of his old writings available on his campaign Web site.

“Scott’s never hidden from his weight or his writings,” Paterno campaign manager Dean Ouellette said in a statement. “But the candidates should be talking about the issues, not the inches of their opponent’s waist line. Someone in this six-person race is acting more like a child then a Congressmen.”

This week, Paterno was dogged by questions about his participation in past elections and his previous traffic violations. His opponents have used those issues to suggest a pattern of irresponsibility and to question whether the 31-year-old has the experience and character to be in Congress.

While Paterno insists that he registered to vote in Centre County while attending Penn State in the mid-1990s, county officials say they can’t find his registration in any of their records.

Paterno does admit that he failed to vote in the 2000 presidential election, even though he lectured fellow students on the importance of voting in a 1996 column he penned for the school newspaper.

Meanwhile, national Republicans have largely stayed out of the primary, content to allow the selection process to play out.

The eventual nominee will see a competitive race due to the nature of the district, strategists say, even though several higher-profile Republicans were recruited to run but passed.

Holden narrowly defeated Rep. George Gekas (R) in a Member vs. Member matchup created by redistricting last cycle.

At the start of this cycle, Holden was expected to be a top target for defeat. But National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said the committee is taking a-wait-and-see approach toward pledging resources to races down the stretch. Holden had $350,000 in the bank at the end of last year.

“That goes in the hopper and we’ll see how that stacks up against other races,” Reynolds said.

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