NEW YORK -- Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is a big-time booster of President Barack Obama, despite conventional wisdom. He thinks highly of the president, enjoys serving as a surrogate, and often defends him from personal and political criticism. Occasionally, however, Rendell speaks his mind in ways that don't comport with the Obama campaign's message of the day.
Sometimes, the result isn't all that severe. At a roundtable discussion at Bloomberg View on Wednesday, for instance, Rendell urged the Obama White House to phase out all the Bush tax cuts over time (while letting those for the top end earners end immediately). This isn't the president's position (he wants to extend the rates for lower income earners indefinitely). But no one will particularly care or notice.
On occasion, however, Rendell's pronouncements can cause headaches. When Rendell was asked, at that same event, whether the president would win the Keystone State in November, his inability to answer with a definitive yes seems likely to create one of those instances.
"It's going to be a close election. The president is not going to do well in the west. He lost 11 of 12 southwestern Democratic counties in 2008, even though he won the state by 11 points," said Rendell, who was at the event to promote his book, "A Nation of Wusses." "I think he will improve the vote there because a number of them are construction workers, etc. ... and I think they know what is going on. I think he will do better there. But I don't think he will carry there. The election will be determined by basically the four Philadelphia suburban counties."
Will he win, Rendell was asked again. He paused for about five seconds, then offered the following:
He won enormously in '08. Clinton won twice, Gore won, Kerry won. Not by big margins. And Obama will probably, if you put the four counties together, he will carry. The question is will he carry enough. That depends on a couple of things. It really depends on how good Governor Romney's campaign is at Etch-A-Sketch. You know, that guy [Communications Director Eric Ferhnstrom] told the truth. You are all aware of that. He probably shouldn't have said it, but he told the truth.
I tell people Governor Romney's biggest liability in the primaries was that people really didn't believe he was a conservative. His biggest asset in the general election is people really don't believe he is a conservative. So will those moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, independents in the Philadelphia suburbs vote for him because he is really a moderate who is going to govern in a moderate fashion? I don't know.
But I will tell you what I think in the end will determine how those people vote: one convention speech and maybe the first two debates. All the rest of it is noise. Our guys were moaning and groaning about Citizens United. Citizens United sucks. But in the end, by October, people will have turned out all that stuff. They are going to be so bombarded no one is going to be listening in October. And I think the debates are going to determine and the convention speech is going to determine who wins this election.
That didn't exactly answer the question. So it was asked again. "So bottom line, is Pennsylvania is in play?"
"Oh, it is definitely in play," Rendell replied. He went on about how bizarre it was to read reports that Republicans weren't making investments in the state. "Can't be right. I mean why would you do that? And why would you make that judgment now?"
"I think it is definitely in play," he said again. "I said from the beginning, Mitt Romney is the only candidate who had a chance to do well enough in the Philadelphia suburbs to carry the state. If I had to bet, I would bet he won't, because the president is going to do very well in the debate."
If Pennsylvania does indeed come down to the debates, the Obama campaign is in more political trouble than anyone envisions. The Huffpost Pollster average has Obama with a nine percentage point lead there. Rendell knows his state very well. But he also was a bit more skeptical of Obama's chances there in 2008 than reality warranted.
Getting up to go to another event, the former governor turned around and asked: "What will David Axelrod think of this?" He wouldn't hear from the Obama campaign strategist directly, he had noted earlier, because Axelrod no longer calls him to complain directly.