WASHINGTON – The new year has brought a fresh wave of activity in this year's Pennsylvania Senate race – and a surprising assessment from the commonwealth's Democratic chairman, who said Braddock Mayor John Fetterman could give the party its best chance to win.

The chairman, Marcel Groen, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Thursday that Fetterman would "be the toughest candidate" in a general election matchup against Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican incumbent.

"In a society looking for different, he could catch on," Groen told the paper – though he also played up Katie McGinty's establishment support and Joe Sestak's grassroots backing, and said the party was unlikely to pick sides in the primary.

Fetterman, mayor of a small borough outside Pittsburgh, has generally been considered a wild card in the race, with most attention focused on Sestak, a former congressman and 2010 Senate nominee, and McGinty, Gov. Wolf's former chief of staff. But Groen said the mayor with a knack for grabbing attention – helped by his six-foot-eight frame and prominent tattoos – is "more competitive than people think" -- different, yet grounded on policy.

All three Democrats, however, have much work to do before the April 26 primary. So far none have been able to separate from the pack, and they are little known, according to public opinion polls. Each is working to change that as the election year begins.

Sestak embarked on a two-day, seven-stop tour across the state Wednesday and Thursday, promoting a 48-page policy plan touching on topics from small business to manufacturing to immigration and more. His campaign has promoted it as the most detailed set of proposals of anyone in the race.

Called the "Plan for Restoring the American Dream for Working Families," Sestak says it distills and updates a policy book he published earlier this year after he walked across the commonwealth.

"I want to let (voters) know what I'm going to be held accountable for," he said by telephone in between stops in Harrisburg and Scranton.

McGinty launched a diner tour Thursday in Pittsburgh. Her tour, which will run at least into next month, began as the former chief of staff for Gov. Wolf also launched a new web site outlining more of her policy plans.

"As a restaurant hostess, my mother always said that the best way to get to know someone is over a cup of coffee," McGinty said in a news release announcing her travels. "I'm going to be listening to what hard-working Pennsylvanians have to say, and offer my ideas on how middle class families and our children can get ahead."

Fetterman said he, too, will continue crisscrossing the state for meetings and events – as well as lining up media appearances. Fetterman also plans to launch another in his series of videos highlighting key issues, the latest one to focus on LGBT concerns.

The three candidates enter the year hopeful that the presidential race gives their party a lift in a Senate contest already drawing national attention -- and critical to deciding control of the chamber.

Meanwhile, Toomey opened the year by focusing heavily on the Iran nuclear deal – blasting President Obama and his Democratic challengers on it. His campaign also shared a memo with the Tribune-Review saying he ended 2015 with a whopping $9.6 million on hand for the coming re-election fight – and that's without a serious primary challenge.

Full reports from all candidates are due later this month.

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