HARRISBURG - The partisan rancor swirling around the health-care debate has shifted from Washington to the states, and nowhere more so than in the race to choose Pennsylvania's next governor.
Last week's decision by Tom Corbett and 12 other state attorneys general to sue to halt implementation of the health-care law has opened deep fissures along the political fault lines.
The attorneys general, all but one of them Republicans, say the bill President Obama signed last week violates the Constitution by infringing on states' rights and forcing citizens to purchase a product - in this case, health insurance.
In states such as Pennsylvania, the suit has pitted Democratic governors against their chief law enforcement officers, and injected the national health-care issue into state races.
The suit has "started a firestorm which will percolate down into the entire political system of states and has the potential to emerge as a huge issue in the governor's race," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "How could we imagine a week ago this issue would grow to become a major one in the governor's election and is now affecting the budget of the state?"
Among the attorneys general who have signed on to the suit, Corbett is one of four who are running for governorships this year, and a fifth, Mark Shurteleff of Utah is a U.S. Senate candidate.
The suit has sparked a fresh round of debate across the country - in Internet chat rooms, on editorial pages, and within state government. By the end of the week, the suit had state and national party leaders in a renewed war of words.
On Friday, four Democratic governors - among them, Gov. Rendell - sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, offering to help him defend the act against their own states' attorneys general.
"We believe their legal efforts will fail in court, unnecessarily delay the urgent need to get our citizens access to health care and waste our state tax dollars," said the letter signed also by the governors of Washington, Michigan, and Colorado.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati - the Republican who assumed the post after Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll died last year - struck back late Friday, announcing plans to introduce legislation to allow the state to opt out of the federal health plan.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) was among dozens of Democratic lawmakers who condemned the lawsuit last week and accused Corbett of playing politics with taxpayer money.
Evans, chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, went so far as to threaten to cut the budget for Corbett's office.
"I question his motives," said Evans in an interview. "I don't apologize for that. This is blatantly political."
In a letter to Corbett - who last month appeared before the Appropriations Committee with a request for a budget increase - Evans demanded that the attorney general account for time used to work on the health-care suit. "Where will he be cutting from?" Evans said. "What will his staff not be doing as a result?"
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said there were no plans to send Evans cost estimates, because there are no additional costs to taxpayers.
"The Florida attorney general filed the case and our staff attorneys reviewed it," said Harley. "They have the ability to handle many cases at once."
Corbett fired off a double-barreled response in the form of letters from his campaign and his state office.
To Evans, he wrote, "I believe that it is my duty to protect our interest in the sovereignty of the Commonwealth against this encroachment." Corbett also said he was "deeply disturbed" by Evans' threat to his budget.
The state House Republican caucus rallied to Corbett's side, with 86 members signing a letter applauding him for joining the suit and challenging the new health-care law, which they called an "unprecedented intrusion into the lives of Pennsylvanians."
Both sides say the health-care debate and the suit will help rally their political base.
The White House has taken the position, echoed by political organs of the Democratic Party, that the suit is motivated by political ambitions of many of the attorneys general involved. "This is a pretty good way to get on TV," a senior administration official said in briefing reporters on the White House legal response.
Steve Lombardo, a Washington-based Republican pollster and strategist, suggested Democrats are setting a political trap for the other party's congressional candidates.
"The GOP should not take the bait," Lombardo advised in a series of messages on Twitter. "Instead, pivot to the economy - Obama's big problem." He argued that Democrats are vulnerable to the charge that they focused on the health-care bill at the expense of creating jobs and pulling the nation out of its worst recession in decades.
But whether the suit and the larger health-care fight stir voters in state races remains to be seen. One self-styled former Corbett supporter said the attorney general was testing her loyalty. "He's not representing the people of Pennsylvania, he's representing the Republican Party," said Ruth Kahn of Warminster.
It would take a lot, however, to rock Corbett's boat as the May 18 primary approaches. As Rendell said last week to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Corbett is the front-runner in a race with conservative state Rep. Sam Rohrer (R., Berks).
The Democratic governor suggested the Republican attorney general was trying too hard to pick up more conservative voters.
"Tom Corbett is a very decent guy and has been a moderate before," Rendell told Maddow. "He doesn't need to do this to win the primary."
Regardless of where voters stand on the health-care act, the lawsuit has gained people's attention, pollster Madonna said.
"There are many people who believe it is unconstitutional and many people who support the health plan," he said. "The issue is inflaming those passions."