America's Most Vulnerable Governor: Unapologetic and Undeterred

Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett faces a daunting path to re-election.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference following a night of rioting in response to the firing of head football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal on Nov. 10, 2011, in State College, Pa.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett will need to replicate the measurable success he’s had with weight loss in his re-election campaign.

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Tom Corbett is tired of eggs.

Seated at a neatly white-clothed corner table at the Avenue Grill inside Washington’s J.W. Marriott hotel, the first-term Republican governor of Pennsylvania is about to enjoy his free day.

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He’s shed 35 pounds since August adhering to a strict low-carb, low-sugar diet. But on this early Sunday morning he’s permitted himself to indulge a bit.

“This is my Sunday treat to myself,” he explains, brimming an ear-to-ear grin as the waiter drops a plain waffle and two strips of bacon in front of him.

Later, during a free-flowing 50-minute conversation in the midst of National Governors Association meetings, the 64-year-old Philadelphia native draws a striking parallel between his rigorous eating regimen and the daunting political challenge he’s facing in his commonwealth.

“We’re navigating our way through a very difficult time. Just like I was on this diet, you’ve got to stick to your discipline. We’re sticking to our discipline and it’s going to make us stronger in the long run,” he says.

In order to win a second term, Corbett will need to replicate the measurable success he’s had with weight loss in his re-election campaign.

Pile up the statistics and it becomes easily apparent why he’s earned the brand of America’s most vulnerable governor.

Just 1 in 4 registered voters in Pennsylvania believe he deserves another term, including less than half of his own party. In December, he earned his worst-ever net approval rating in the Quinnipiac University poll. And that number was generous compared to another fall survey which tracked his approval rating all the way down to 24 percent.

Before this reporter can even rattle off one of those dour statistics, Corbett places his fork down and interrupts.  

“How do you separate, when you ask that question, how do you separate that from how they feel about the country? Because I think it’s bleed-over from the country. They think the country’s on the wrong track. It’s very hard to separate,” he contends.

When it’s noted that his name has been polled specifically and separately from President Barack Obama, Corbett offers up another explanation – and an unintentional concession – of a failure to communicate.

“We haven’t gotten our story out. We’ll get our story out now once that we have an opponent. Actually we’re starting to get our story out now,” he says.

For Democrats, Corbett’s story has already been written. And it’s an obituary.

“Mr. Corbett has more Achilles’ heels than he has feet in Pennsylvania,” swipes state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn. “He deserves to be the least popular governor in the United States. He’s earned that title.”

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The large field that’s assembled to oppose Corbett could be seen as a referendum in itself.

Seven Democrats have lined up for a shot at the nomination and polls show the governor trails most of them. On top of all that, there’s this ominous statistic: Of the five Pennsylvania governors to be re-elected since 1970, four have enjoyed an unemployment rate under 6 percent the month before the vote. Pennsylvania’s unemployment currently stands at 6.9 percent.

“I don’t know how you can predict where unemployment’s going to be, because there are conditions beyond my control. What happens here in Washington is beyond my control. Health care and the cost of health care is beyond my control,” he laments.

And yet, Corbett remains obstinately undeterred and perhaps somewhat unwilling to accept his predicament.

He issues no regrets for the policy moves he’s made nor grants any apologies for the verbal slip-ups that have exposed him to a perpetual political whipsaw. In most cases, he reverts to the fail-safe tradition of blaming the media for misrepresentation, exaggeration and obfuscation.

When challenged, he can steer an argument quite persuasively, peppering his answers with copious tidbits about economic progress in cities across the state. The Ocean Spray plant in the Lehigh Valley. The new Volvo headquarters in Shippensburg.

But for a governor who has been labeled by home state press as “the most precariously situated incumbent in modern state history,” he shows almost no signs of hand-wringing or second-guessing.

“I made promises to you and I kept them,” is what he says he’ll tell voters.

But he seems to be cognizant of how difficult explanations can be to convey inside a merciless campaign cycle.

When it comes to explaining his first-term record, there may be no issue he is forced to devote more time to than education.

He has been pulverized by the unions for cutting $1 billion in education spending, which caused the state’s 500 districts to slash 20,000 jobs, increase class sizes and reduce elective courses.

But Corbett takes issue with how the decision has been framed by his opponents and the press.

“Very hard to get the media to explain it,” he grouses.

His version: His predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell, received one-time stimulus money in 2009 and plugged it into the education budget. It ran out in 2011, leaving Corbett a hole to fill. Unwilling to raise taxes – close to $1,000 a year for the average family of four – he decided against backfilling the gap with state money.

Calling that a cut is politically inevitable, but to Corbett, it’s just unfair.

“If you won $10,000 in a charity raffle this year, would you continue to say I’m going to win $10,000 every year when they budget? Well, that’s pretty much what happened,” he says. “Did we make a very tough, disciplined decision to live within the budget? Yes.”

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If the media would simply do its job like reporting the fact that most Philadelphia teachers pay nothing into their own health care, opinion wouldn’t be so stacked against him, he asserts.

“Maybe they won’t feel quite as sympathetic toward this issue,” he says. “The people don’t know that.”

Burn renders this issue essentially a loser for Corbett, who had the option to trim funding in other areas to keep education solvent.

“To make that weak analogy is an example of Corbett’s two-dimensional thinking as it relates to governing. He tries to do simple math when quantum equations are required, and people are not buying this simple excuse,” Burn says.

Then there are the minefields he’s entered on lightning rod cultural issues, like when he compared gay marriage to incest between a brother and sister in a local television interview.

Corbett now says he was never making that parallel and was simply trying to offer a legal comparison of people who can’t wed under state law.

“It was blown completely out of proportion. I wasn’t comparing gay marriages to a brother and sister getting married. What I was saying is they were a category that are ineligible to get married and they took this little bit and went like that,” he says, using emphatic hand gestures to drive home his point.    

Like the education debate, the problem for Corbett is the tape of his television clip is far more memorable than his explanation.

If Corbett is to save himself, he’ll likely need some good fortune. The Democratic primary is in May and there’s always a chance that bruised feelings produced by the outcome could create lingering fissures. A liberal Democrat from Philadelphia could emerge the victor and turn off the rest of the state. The unemployment rate could tick down some more. The national environment for Democrats in a midterm year could sour even more demonstrably.

But more likely, the burden will fall on Corbett and Republican-aligned forces to make the Democratic choice an unelectable alternative, ensuring a brutal no-holds-barred campaign.

The governor should enjoy his Sunday waffle; he’s going to need to load up on protein the next eight months.