The smell of burning rubber is wafting through Pennsylvania.
It is the scent that results when the accelerator is floored, but the vehicle remains in park with its tires squealing. It is the scent of Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election campaign.
Despite there being more than two months before Election Day, a sense of inevitability is pooling under the Governor’s Mansion like leaking oil collecting beneath an aging Chevy. Corbett faces nearly insurmountable odds in defeating Democratic challenger Tom Wolf in November.
After his abysmal polling numbers in late spring, Corbett needed to gain considerable ground on Wolf over the summer. Instead of moving forward, the governor was pushed off the spring line of scrimmage as easily as a lightweight offensive lineman with an eating disorder.
In June, a Franklin & Marshall University poll had Wolf in the lead, 47 percent to 25 percent with 27 percent of respondents undecided. The latest Franklin & Marshall poll released on Thursday had Wolf ahead 49 percent to 24 percent, with 25 percent undecided.
There’s more. Corbett’s favorability declined to 24 percent in the latest poll, down from 27 percent in June. Corbett’s unfavorability increased to 56 percent, up from 49. Corbett’s unlikely path to victory seems clear at this point: Somehow persuade the entire undecided demographic to vote for him, while maintaining hope that a small percentage of Wolf supporters tragically perish in a rare autumnal avalanche in Colorado.
The Corbett campaign’s curious response to the atrocious numbers was to tie Wolf to Ed Rendell, Corbett’s predecessor as governor. A Corbett campaign commercial that debuted on Thursday equated voting for Wolf to voting for a third term for Rendell.
Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman explained the reasoning behind the spot: “Wolf was Rendell’s chief tax collector, and their administration left Pennsylvania with higher taxes, high unemployment, a $4.2 billion budget deficit and a complete failure of our children by cutting state funding for schools and using one-time stimulus funds to cover it up.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s a highly unusual campaign strategy to tie your opponent to someone more popular than your own candidate. Rendell was re-elected in 2006 by a 20-point margin over Republican Lynn Swann, and conceivably could have won again in 2010 were it not for term limits.
So the commercial’s message essentially is this: “Remember that governor who was so popular that you re-elected him in a landslide? Guess what — our opponent is just like him.”
I can’t figure out how that helps Corbett sway the undecided.
The gap between the candidates likely will narrow between now and Election Day. Or will it? Some predicted the race would tighten over the summer. What appears to have tightened is Wolf’s grip on a likely win.
Meanwhile, the tires continue to squeal in Corbett’s campaign, but the car isn’t moving.
The scent of burning rubber? Inescapable.
Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or [email protected].