"I don't think any endorsement for President means jack," Ed Rendell will tell you. But if you spend a morning watching the popular governor of Pennsylvania work the phone for his favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, you quickly see why he is the exception to his own rule.
On one line in his Philadelphia office, he is pondering real estate for a Clinton news conference the following week; the West Philadelphia YMCA has a room that would be just the right size. Then comes a call to Sandi Vito, the state's acting secretary of labor. "Could you do a quick, down-and-dirty memo for me on [the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program] for Mrs. Clinton?" Rendell wants to know. "On your own time," he adds. Of course. The next order of business is a Clinton fund raiser in western Pennsylvania. "I want each of you to come as close to or exceed $100,000 for your guys," he tells Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato. "If you need me to make any follow-up calls, I will."
As Barack Obama supporter John Kerry told George Stephanopoulos on March 30 on ABC's This Week, "If you're going to be campaigning in Pennsylvania, it's good to have Ed Rendell with you ... Better to have him with you than against you." Kerry should know. Rendell, whose fund-raising and organizational prowess are the stuff of legend in Pennsylvania politics, was Kerry's biggest asset in that all-important swing state four years ago, when he squeezed out a two-point victory over George W. Bush there. Had the 2004 Democratic nominee managed to do the same in neighboring Ohio, Kerry would be running his reelection campaign now rather than squaring off against his old ally on Sunday-morning television.
Whether Rendell can help work that kind of magic for Clinton in 2008 is the question on which she is pinning her increasingly fragile hopes of overtaking Obama for the Democratic nomination. Clinton does start with some built-in advantages, Rendell notes, not the least of which are the many trips she and her husband made to the state during his presidency, usually bringing good newsand money. And there was a lot of money from Washington, including the $50 million the feds put up to entice an Anglo-Norwegian shipbuilder to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and the funding that put hundreds of new police officers on the streets of Philadelphia. Rendell was the city's mayor at the time and always at the Clintons' side for the photo op. "I am the best messenger to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania about the 1990s," Rendell boasts. "What part of the 1990s didn't you likethe peace or the prosperity?"
Rendell, 64, is a ferocious advocate for Clinton, and he doesn't hesitate to complain about the raw deal he says she has gotten from the media. In a recent appearance on Fox Newsnot exactly considered friendly territory for the Democratshe congratulated the network for having done "the fairest job [and] remained the most objective of all the cable networks." In an interview with me, the governor was again in media-critic mode. "It took Saturday Night Live to bring some fairness to this election," Rendell said, referring to the show's now famous skit lampooning the media's crush on Obama. "It's stunning. Does Keith Olbermann get checks from the Obama campaign?"
Having such a jumbo-size personality on your team is not without its drawbacks. Rendell has a penchant for speaking his mind in ways that make for good headlines but aren't always on message. In February, for instance, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board that some whites in the state "are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate." As evidence, he offered his own 2006 reelection over challenger and former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann: "Had Lynn Swann been the identical candidate that he waswell-spoken, charismatic, good-lookingbut white instead of black, instead of winning by 22 points, I would have won by 17 or so."
And yet Rendell won the governor's job in 2002 on an electoral strategy that looked far more like Obama's than Clinton's. In the Democratic primary, he carried only 10 of the state's 67 counties but racked up huge margins in Philadelphia and its relatively liberal suburbs. That was enough to beat Bob Casey Jr.the party establishment's pick in the primary for the job and now a Senatorby a hefty 14-point margin.
The man who holds so much sway in Pennsylvania politics actually grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He migrated to Philadelphia for college and stayed there after law school, in the district attorney's office. In 1977 Rendell audaciously ran against his boss and beat him in the primary. But his faith in himself hasn't always been so well placed. Rendell fell far short when he ran for governor in 1986, getting trampled, as it happened, by Casey's father and setting up a familial rivalryone that continues in the 2008 presidential race now that Casey is Obama's most high-profile Pennsylvania supporter.
Even if Clinton wins the state's primary on April 22, her chances of taking the big prize are slimas Rendell, for all his bluster, must surely understand better than most. Either way, Ed Rendell will go on. "I like Barack," he says. "If he's the nominee, we'll bust a hump for him."