It’s Alive! The Pennsylvania primary

    The Republican party in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia is seething, due to a pair of unrelated developments.

    First there’s Mitt and Newt. Mitt’s collapse and Newt’s surge in South Carolina have suddenly changed the complexion of the GOP presidential race, which means that the normally moribund Pennsylvania primary could actually matter.

    You may remember what it was like four years ago, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went at each other in Pennsylvania, spittin’, bitin’ and scratchin’ from Broad Street to Lake Erie. There were hoards of national media, millions spent on TV ads, mailers, robocalls and field armies, and a massive swelling of the Democratic ranks, because in closed primary like ours you must be a registered party member to vote.

    Could we be in for a Republican rumble in 2012?

    I spoke to three old party hands yesterday.

    Veteran attorney and money man Charlie Kopp, the Pennsylvania finance chairman for Mitt Romney said he thinks the Pennsylvania primary could be very significant, and has thought so all along.

    Republican city committee chairman Vito Canuso said he didn’t see it happening, that the fight will be over before anybody comes to the keystone state.

    And Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association President Fred Anton, a long time player in the party says, “could be.”

    But here’s something I didn’t know about the Republican primary here: your vote for a presidential candidate has pretty much nothing to do with how many delegates he receives to the national convention.

    In Pennsylvania, most of the state’s 72 delegates are elected, competing within Congressional districts. But nothing on the ballot tells you which candidate they favor if any, and none of the delegates elected are bound to support any candidate.

    So the state’s popular vote is the proverbial beauty contest.

    Weird, huh? Party veterans I spoke to said it hasn’t mattered in the past, because by the time the Pennsylvania primary came around, the nomination was decided and everybody just joined in for the four-day kegger we call the national convention.

    But if we’re in for a real fight, Kopp told me, campaigns have to start thinking now about how to play the game.

    “What each campaign would want to do would be to try get someone who is sympathetic to your candidacy, and is a high profile person with high name recognition to run for delegate,” he said. A sitting Congressman or prominent state legislator would fit the bill.

    Ron Paul has an organization here, and will no doubt put together slates of delegates. My sense is that Newt doesn’t have much of an army here, but his supporters will no doubt begin to come together and organize.

    Santorum still has friends, especially in Western Pennsylvania. And Kopp and his mates are already working for Mitt.

    Delegates have three weeks to circulate their nominating petitions. They’re due on Valentine’s Day.

    Meanwhile the battle for control of the Philadelphia Republican party continues to churn.

    An increasing number of elected officials and party ward leaders favor an accommodation with the insurgents who call themselves The Loyal Opposition.

    When I spoke to Anton, he volunteered that “democracy has broken out in the Philadelphia Republican party.”

    As an example, he told me that in the past, when he wanted to become a delegate to the Republican National Convention, he simply contacted party leader Michael Meehan and got the endorsement.

    This year, he said he had to attend a meeting of ward leaders from the 1st Congressional District and make an appeal for support. He got the endorsement, but he was impressed that more people in the party are now demanding a say in key decisions.

    The unresolved question is who might replace longtime party chairman Vito Canuso. Rick Helberg, who has run against U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is among the names in circulation, along with former mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger and others.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.