I'VE KNOWN Tom Corbett since 1995, when Gov. Ridge appointed him to serve out the term of Attorney General Ernie Preate, who had to serve out a term of his own - in prison. Corbett held the post until January 1997, then won it electorally in 2004. I've interviewed him many times, watched him in lots of settings, moderated debates in which he took part, and talked on background over the years with his friends, allies and enemies to get a sense of who he is.
I, and most folks with whom I've spoken, regard him as a genuinely decent guy (for a lawyer), an elected official with a strong set of beliefs (a rarity) and - if a tad too tied to his prosecutorial past, fairly rigid and not the quickest draw in the corral - a potentially promising governor.
Now half the state agrees, and by a wider margin than his 10-point win just last November.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released last week shows the Guv with a 50-32 approval rating, his highest since taking office in January.
He is, quite naturally, beloved among GOPers (72 percent) and belittled by most Democrats (only 32 percent approve).
But inside the poll are some telling numbers: Independents approve 52-32; every area of the state (but Philly) approves; "union households" approve (45-43) even though the Guv supports selling state liquor stores and laying off teachers.
And when you go past job performance and ask about liking Corbett "as a person," his numbers are even higher. It's impressive - in this economy and in a state cutting services. Other new Republican governors must be jealous.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's approval is only 37 percent; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's was the same in the most recent University of Wisconsin poll; Ohio Gov. John Kasich was at 35 percent in that state's most recent Quinnipiac poll.
And even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - before becoming "the Great GOP Hope" - was only at 47-46 approval in his home state back in mid-August.
So what's up with Corbett? I have some thoughts.
First, he still has what got him here.
Two things helped him last year: He looks as if he's from central casting; he's not Ed Rendell. He doesn't need to stress the former; clearly he still stresses the latter.
He isn't out pushing an active agenda. He declines invites to national gab shows. And his low profile's plainly intended as a respite from Ed-mania.
Second, he did what he said he'd do.
Corbett kept promises to cut spending and (so far) not raise taxes, and did so without the sort of overt attacks on public unions seen in other states.
Third, disasters lift all boats.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina, Dubya, and former FEMA head Michael D. "Brownie" Brown in '05, public officials are fast to grab public attention with images of calm and control, even if obvious or overkill. Corbett projected leadership during last month's Hurricane Irene.
Fourth, he's not the face of sweeping change.
Most news releases from his office relate to lottery winners and mosquito spraying. But, hey, it's working. If Pennsylvanians love anything, it's sameness, peace and quiet. Inactive government is popular government.
Corbett's approach - look good, do little, show up only as needed - plays to the soul of a state among the national leaders in rural population, licensed hunters, covered bridges and mushroom production.
There's more to incumbency than the first eight months. Looming issues (vouchers, state stores, roads and bridges, natural gas tax/fee) are divisive.
But for now - by accident, circumstance or design - Corbett's sitting pretty.