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End Run

Steelers legend Lynn Swann campaigns for governor of Pennsylvania, but he's facing a big deficit at halftime against the incumbent, who is an avid Eagles fan

May 14, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

WEST CHESTER, Pa. — The four-seat plane wheeled to a stop and out climbed Lynn Swann, the Pittsburgh Steelers legend who's the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania.

He parted ways with the businessmen who'd joined him for the short flight and stepped into the terminal of tiny Brandywine Airport, outside Philadelphia.

It was 9 a.m. His day already was in full swing. In the next 12 hours, he would make fundraising stops in Philadelphia, Bedford County, Fulton County and Pittsburgh, where he would finish the day with a fish fry and a speech.

Those are the kinds of fly patterns he runs these days, exhausting even for one of the greatest deep threats in NFL history. The man with four Super Bowl rings is now reaching for the brass one: the top job in the nation's seventh-largest state.

"Sure, it's a grind," said Swann, 54, angling to be the state's first black governor. "But what statewide campaign isn't? Pennsylvania is a big state."

And Swann's is a big task. He's looking to unseat Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell, a seasoned politician and former Philadelphia mayor who has opened a 14-point lead in the race, according to a Keystone poll released last week.

The Swann-Rendell showdown features footballs political and actual. The issues aren't only Republican vs. Democrat and Roe vs. Wade ... but Steelers vs. Eagles.

Swann is among Pittsburgh's most popular sports stars; Rendell is such a devout Eagles fan that he provides postgame television commentary each fall Sunday. Rendell has been a season-ticket holder for more than 30 years.

Swann, who said he entered the race because of "a need for different and better leadership," is far behind in campaign fundraising. He has raised $3.3 million, compared with Rendell's $17.2 million. Moreover, Swann is a political novice, having never run for public office.

"What we've got going here is two celebrities with rock-star appeal," said G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs in Lancaster, Pa. "And Ed is Clinton-esque in his ability to campaign and raise money."

Rendell also has a popular Pittsburgh ally in Franco Harris, former star running back for the Steelers and neighbor of Swann's in the posh Sewickley Heights area of Pittsburgh. Harris, who accepts the label of "liberal Democrat," has said he plans to raise money and speak at benefits and on television on behalf of Rendell, 62.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg.com, Harris said he and Swann had always been close.

"But right now, I feel there needs to be a change in the direction from where our national administration has taken us and where the Republicans in the state government want to take us," Harris said.

Swann's reaction?

"Rendell can't campaign on his own," he said. "He needs help from other people because people realize he hasn't done a great job. And so in an effort to try to win and have a better image now in the western part of the state, he's calling on other people to shore up his bad image."

The surveys don't necessarily reflect that. The most recent Keystone poll, conducted in the last month by Madonna's school, had Rendell with a lead of 49% to 35%. Rendell, who led by only three points in the February poll, began a statewide TV advertising campaign in recent weeks, touting his accomplishments. His favorability rating has climbed to 48%, the highest since March 2005. Even so, some political analysts are expecting the race to tighten as the November election nears. The candidates are running virtually unopposed in Tuesday's primary.

"For Rendell to keep that gap widening, he's got to stay on the air," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "That's a pretty expensive proposition, even for a guy with millions of dollars. This is not the race Rendell thought he'd have. I think he expected a much easier run."

Duffy said Swann received a boost in the polls when the Steelers won the Super Bowl, if only because it made him a must-have interview.

"I think he was on TV, talking about the Super Bowl, every day of the week before, and a couple of days after," she said. "You can't buy the kind of exposure he got."

Swann, a former USC standout who retired from football in 1982 after nine NFL seasons, worked for years as a sideline reporter on ABC college football. He was host of "Battle of the Network Stars" and "To Tell the Truth," played himself in "The Waterboy" with Adam Sandler and "The Last Boy Scout" with Bruce Willis, and still is frequently asked about his guest appearance on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

He served for two years as chairman of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, and was appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He also served on the corporate boards of Hershey Foods and H.J. Heinz.

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