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John Baer: What's for Dinner at Waldorf? Tradition

NEW YORK - Tradition, like conventional wisdom, tends to carry on, no matter the year, the ailing economy or the spreading scandals.

NEW YORK - Tradition, like conventional wisdom, tends to carry on, no matter the year, the ailing economy or the spreading scandals.

So thousands of Pennsylvanians who by choice, chance or marriage are connected, or wish to be, to the power grid of politics, showed up here over the weekend for the 111th annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Society.

There was more buzz about the race for governor than about Arlen Specter's efforts to extend his long career. There was chatter about the ongoing corruption probe and how it impacts elections.

But mostly there was the familiar excess of food and drink, fundraisers and forums and glad-handing politicians.

For more than a century

they've come to spend time and money here, to circulate in the same events, to see the same faces; and then to crowd, tuxedoed, gowned and bejeweled, into the tiered ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a black-tie supper Saturday night.

(This is actually the only event sanctioned by the society; close to 50 breakfasts, lunches, dinners, meetings and receptions are sponsored by candidates, law firms and special interests.)

I've now attended what feels like most of these so-alike weekends and agree with Comcast's David L. Cohen, who took time out from running the world to proclaim the event "Groundhog Day."

Hi, howya doin'? Nice to seeya. Everything good? Yeah, fine. OK, seeya next year.

As mentioned, attention was paid to the race for governor: eight candidates - five Democrats, three Republicans - for an open seat next year.

Friday, in dueling receptions one right after the other in Waldorf venues not 50 feet apart, Allegheny County executive and presumed Democratic frontrunner Dan Onorato outdrew his ever-optimistic fellow Pittsburgher, state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

The latter is not dismayed.

"I feel good," Wagner says. "I think I'm in as good a position as anyone. I don't care who's supporting who. I'm an optimist."

Onorato, better financed and with access to the resources of Edward G. Rendell, says that what he did in his county will play in a statewide race.

"I actually changed government," he says. "I cut the county payroll, reduced taxes, reduced the number of row offices . . . [Republican] candidates never had to govern."

Other Democrats running are Montco Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty and Philly's own Tom Knox. All were in the city, although I never saw Knox.

As to conventional wisdom, it contends that 2010 presents itself as a year when the "Pennsylvania cycle" comes around again. For no known good reason, state voters change parties in the governor's office every eight years, and have done so since 1946. It's Republicans' time, so some already look ahead.

Philly labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, for example, sees me chatting with Democratic state Treasurer Rob McCord outside Doc's loud and packed reception and promptly tags McCord "the future of the Democratic Party."

So Attorney General Tom Corbett, the only candidate with statewide name ID, appears positioned to ride the cycle right into the governorship.

"I've run an agency of 800 people," Corbett says, "but I've also been in the private sector [as a practicing lawyer and corporate counsel] and that gives me experience that Dan Onorato doesn't have . . . I know what it takes to make a business grow."

He also knows what it takes to make a profile grow. His ongoing investigation of the Legislature so far has led to 22 charged, five guilty pleas and one acquittal at trial.

That acquittal, of former Beaver County Democratic state Rep. Sean Ramaley, has, Corbett contends, "no impact" on pending cases; and, according to Corbett campaign manager Brian Nutt, dutifully eavesdropping on the conversation, "zero" impact on the campaign.

Other Republicans running are Philly 'burbs Congressman Jim Gerlach and Berks County state Rep. Sam Rohrer, both also in attendance.

But that's what candidates do: attend. That's the tradition. And conventional wisdom suggests it's likely to continue.

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