State Sen. Mike Stack III, Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, made the obligatory pilgrimage for all would-be statewide candidates recently - to the Farm Show, the giant indoor wintertime state fair in Harrisburg.

He didn't get media attention, though his aide's cellphone does contain a shot of the senator cradling a piglet. Neither does Stack get much mention in media lists of potential challengers to Gov. Corbett, but he is seriously preparing to do it.

"How dare you disregard me?" Stack joked. He said losing three races before being elected to the Senate in 2000 taught him patience - "You know, they'll take notice of you at some point in time."

Stack, 49, is betting the voters of Pennsylvania are ready for a machine politician from the city much of the state loves to hate. He is Democratic leader of the 58th Ward, son of a beloved ward leader, and grandson of a New Deal congressman (a sponsor of the first federal minimum wage, 25 cents an hour).

But the Northeast is more like Pittsburgh or Scranton than Center City, Stack argues. And though he has supported her, he thinks Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County is too liberal to win statewide.

"She's done a great job in Congress and is on the fast track to leadership," Stack said Friday in an interview at the Tiffany Diner on Roosevelt Boulevard. "I think Allyson can best serve Pennsylvania in Washington."

In Harrisburg, Stack secured state aid to help the Torresdale Health System expand. He wants to restore low-cost health insurance for the working poor, and faults Corbett for what he calls a too-cozy relationship with business and for cutting programs that serve "the underdog."

Stack disputes one of the strategic assumptions underlying the Schwartz team's planning: that the election of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the first woman to win that post, heralds a new, more open-minded era in Pennsylvania politics. That era, the thinking goes, naturally would favor a certain congresswoman from Jenkintown.

Kane, a former upstate prosecutor, "ran a tough law-and-order crime-fighting campaign," Stack said. "It's not only that she's an attractive lady and a smart lady; she out-Republicaned the Republicans on crime. The difference is, Allyson doesn't have that kind of track record."

He said Democrats in Pennsylvania have often lost on values questions, what he calls "the guns-and-God issue." For the record, Stack says he owns a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol and has a permit to carry, though he doesn't.

"This state is not really a Democratic state," he said. "It's a conservative hybrid." He and some other Democrats worry that some of Schwartz's positions - she once ran a women's clinic and strongly favors abortion rights - could help Corbett, who will be well-funded, win next year.

But a poll for the Democratic Governors Association last month found Schwartz would start ahead of Corbett by 8 percentage points - 50 to 42 - among likely voters. After pollsters read positive statements about each, her lead widened to 21 points.

Pennsylvania has been a sure blue state in presidential elections for the last quarter-century. Still, the GOP controls both houses of the legislature as well as the governor's office and, thanks to skill at drawing friendly districts, has 13 U.S. House members, to five for the Democrats.

Like a bleeding fish in the water amid sharks, Corbett has inspired a Democrat feeding frenzy. He has racked up some of the lowest job-approval scores ever for a Pennsylvania governor - 26 percent in a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll. Only 49 percent of his fellow Republicans queried in a Quinnipiac poll said he deserves a second term.

Analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics lists Corbett among the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation. The race is rated a toss-up, even with a growing and unsettled Democratic field. (Others running or thinking about it include State Treasurer Rob McCord, former Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf, and former Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger.)

Indeed, Sabato said Corbett risks obliterating one of the more interesting streaks in politics - since the mid-1940s, the two parties have switched control of Pennsylvania's governorship every eight years.

"While Corbett has major problems, history may be on his side since he was just elected in 2010," Sabato and colleagues Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley wrote last week. "But these 'rules' of politics get broken sooner or later, and Corbett is sorely testing this rule."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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