WHAT IS UP with Bob Casey Jr.?

This can't be the same historically robotic, play-it-safe, drive-in-neutral Pennsylvania pol we've all gotten used to.

I mean, suddenly he's grown a set.

He shook things up by endorsing Barack Obama just before a Pennsylvania primary that Hillary Clinton's supposed to own.

"I think I surprised a number of people," Casey told me yesterday.

Uh, yeah.

Then he hit the trail with Obama and showed signs of actual life: bowling, playing hoops, visiting a sports bar.

Now he's toe-to-toe with The Big Dog, Gov. Ed, and more than holding his own.

If someone left the country in '02, when Casey ran against Rendell for governor in the Democratic primary, returning now to see Casey-Rendell on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday . . . ?

They'd stare in wide-eyed disbelief, and utter, "InconCEIVable!"

I remember what Casey was. The deportment of an undertaker. Better-suited for state chaplain than any top elected post.

Before his '02 debates with Ed Rendell, he actually got cold and clammy.

But now?

On national TV against Hillary-backing Ed, Casey cut in as the Guv was spinning only-she-can-win-big-states talking points and, well, slapped one down.

"You cannot predict a general election based upon a primary," Casey forcefully said. "It's a basic rule of politics."

Dude, what have you done with the real Bob Casey?

(And, readers, hold your letters and e-mails, I know it's a play on words having to do with his late father.)

Who's this polished player positioned to possibly help decide the next president of the United States?

On "Meet the Press," Casey was poised, relaxed and genuine.

Rendell just seemed to be working.

Now, in fairness, running against and roundly defeating Rick Santorum in '06 certainly boosted Casey's confidence.

And a quiet year in Washington as a junior senator offered him an opportunity to examine the political arts up close and at the highest level.

Still. Casey today strikes me as showing a whole different nature.

Backing Obama when he did (March 28, as Obama's statewide tour was starting) was smart, bold and well-timed.

It appeals to a constituency not naturally Casey's - young, educated, pro-choice. It buys him "independence" points. And if Obama wins (and especially if he nabs Pennsylvania), it's a ticket for Casey and Pennsylvania to punch at later dates and for a long time.

Downside? Hometown Scranton can't be thrilled since Hillary's billed as its hometown girl. A lot of older Democratic women can't like it.

And, yeah, there's family history. Pro-choice Bill Clinton snubbed Casey Sr. at the '92 convention after anti-abortion Casey Sr. refused to endorse him.

But Casey aides say that the history is old, that Casey Jr. and Hillary have a relationship and work well together on issues of mutual interest, especially childhood education and health.

Yet Casey and Obama seem a better fit.

Both are youngish members of an old Senate: Obama's 46; Casey's 47 (turns 48 Sunday); the average age of U.S. senators is 62.

And Casey says that Obama demonstrates "leadership under fire."

As evidence, he points to Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech on race given in Philly March 18 in response to controversy surrounding Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

"It's what the lawyers would say is a 'substantial factor' " in his decision, Casey tells me.

He plans further campaigning with Obama in the state (as soon as tomorrow) and has cut a TV ad for him.

I never put much stock in the endorsement of one pol for another. Each campaign and candidate must perform on its own.

But this Casey thing is notable for more reasons than one - and mainly for the fact that it lifts up Casey. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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