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Kane overcame the doubters en route to Pennsylvania attorney general

Kathleen Kane has a simple explanation for her historic Nov. 6 win as the first woman and first Democrat elected attorney general of Pennsylvania: "I was the right person for the job at the right time."

Kathleen Kane has a simple explanation for her historic Nov. 6 win as the first woman and first Democrat elected attorney general of Pennsylvania: "I was the right person for the job at the right time."

But the path to her victory was not always so clear. Less than a year ago, top members of her party dismissed the 46-year-old newcomer, who had no statewide profile and had never risen above the rank of Lackawanna County assistant district attorney.

Democratic leaders may be licking their chops at the prospects for their freshly minted political star, notwithstanding her own vow to focus on her new job. But the story of Kane's unlikely rise - forged through a combination of savvy campaigning, self-funding, and a neophyte's gift for surprise political maneuvers - has also left some party elders asking: now that she has cleared her own path to Harrisburg, what will she do once she gets there?

"Her success surprised a lot of people," said Patrick Brier, a Northeastern Pennsylvania attorney and campaign consultant. "Not many people saw Kathleen Kane coming."

Winning combination?

In retrospect, the formula seemed obvious.

"She is a moderate woman, which is attractive in the Philadelphia suburbs. She was qualified, and she was attractive to look at," said Marcel Groen, the longtime Montgomery County Democratic chairman. "You put those three things together and you don't screw up, and you've got a winning campaign."

But few embraced that calculus at the beginning.

Party delegates ranked Kane last on their attorney general list, behind Patrick Murphy, the former Bucks County congressman, and Philadelphia prosecutor Dan McCaffery, as they gathered in January to endorse primary candidates.

"The party didn't really know her," said Mary Ellen Balchunis Harris, a Delaware County delegate. "We weren't familiar with her at all."

Even Kane had not always had such lofty ambitions. In 2010, when she approached Brier, a veteran campaigner and former finance chairman for Gov. Bob Casey, she had her sights set on a state Senate run.

But where others saw political inexperience, Brier saw opportunity.

Attorney general 2.0

Since the Attorney General's Office became an elected post in Pennsylvania in 1980, Republicans had prevailed by nominating district attorneys or former federal prosecutors like Tom Corbett with tough-on-crime messages Democrats seemed unable to beat.

In other states, though, something different was happening. Democrats in California, Illinois, and Minnesota had devised a new model for attorney general candidates.

Emphasizing consumer advocacy, senior protection, and hard stances on child safety, women such as California's Kamala Harris had sailed to victory on what Brier called "household issues."

To Brier, Kane seemed a natural fit.

Though she had married into a well-off family, Kane grew up in blue-collar Scranton. She worked her way through Temple Law School mopping floors,

And after a stint at a Philadelphia law firm, she joined the Lackawanna County District Attorney's Office. The pay was less, but Kane said the work as a sex-crimes prosecutor was more fulfilling.

"What Kathleen represented to me was an emerging trend of Democratic women who were very highly received as prosecutors," Brier said. "This was someone that could stand a real shot."

The first hurdle would be to convince the party.

The Kane insurgency

As the January endorsement convention made clear, Kane faced an uphill fight. Democratic delegates opted not to endorse any of the three candidates.

But Murphy was the clear favorite. Green and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, leaders of two of the party's most powerful regional caucuses, lined up behind the Iraq war vet and popular former congressman. Endorsements from trade unions, law enforcement groups, and party luminaries followed, especially after McCaffery dropped out.

Kane's advisers, including J.J. Balaban - a consultant with the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group, the outfit that helped usher Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter into office - sought to stem that tide by setting up meetings with party gatekeepers. Most wouldn't return her phone calls, he said.

"During the primary, the only group that endorsed her was Emily's List," said Balaban, referring to a national group that backs female candidates. "And Patrick Murphy wasn't physically qualified."

With a $2.25 million primary budget - largely provided by Kane's husband, a Scranton-area trucking magnate - Kane's advisers began devising TV ads highlighting the candidate's experience.

Whereas Murphy ran on a pledge to challenge Republicans in Harrisburg, Kane outspent him with commercials emphasizing her prosecutorial experience in trying corrupt officials and pedophiles in the courtroom.

Some advisers worried that foes might use her gender to suggest she wasn't tough enough to be the state's top cop. So one TV ad boasted that Kane had faced down death threats while handling high-profile cases.

But as the primary neared, victory over Murphy remained in doubt.

Then, days before the vote, Kane landed a surprise endorsement her advisers now say all but clinched the race.

She contacted Bill Clinton on a whim. She had been a volunteer coordinator for his wife's 2008 presidential bid.

And to Kane's surprise, just 12 days before the vote, Clinton came through, throwing his support behind her at a Willow Grove rally where he told the crowd the former prosecutor had a "steel spine and a caring heart."

With the words of one of their party's most popular presidents ringing in their ears, Democratic voters selected Kane as their nominee by a five-point margin.

Calling David Cohen

The primary behind them, Democrats feared an all-out assault with a fall race looming against Republican David Freed, the Cumberland County district attorney with Gov. Corbett's backing.

But Kane's quick thinking in securing Clinton's endorsement revealed something to her advisers.

"She showed a unique ability to pick up the political skills quickly," Balaban said. "She has a way of projecting and connecting with people."

She next deployed that charm on David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive, Democratic fund-raiser, and Clinton ally, days before the Willow Grove rally. Knowing Cohen was an ardent Murphy backer, she quietly offered to find time during Clinton's visit for the two to meet.

So as not to fuel speculation about Cohen's allegiances, Kane offered to set up the meeting in private.

"That was, hands down, the classiest voice mail I've ever received from any candidate," Cohen said in an interview. "I called up the people that were doing her race and asked, 'Is this woman for real?' "

As Kane jetted to campaign stops across the state, other strengths emerged. In Erie, Abington, and Altoona, she regaled voters with tales from the courtroom.

"She hooks you," said the state Democratic Party chairman, Jim Burn. "It's almost like she's back talking to jurors. And convincing members of a jury is not that different than talking to voters."

Any concerns that her gender might be a liability evaporated.

During an October debate against Freed in Harrisburg, Kane countered criticism of her lack of management experience by touting her skills as a multitasking mother and quipping that she could debate Freed even while keeping an eye on two rambunctious sons in the front row.

But few factors worked in her favor more than the growing outcry over the child sex-abuse case against former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Seizing on a scandal

The uproar allowed her to tout her experience as a sex-crimes prosecutor and contrast herself against an increasingly unpopular Republican governor.

"Corbett wasn't on the ballot this year," said Lackawanna County's Democratic chairman, Harry McGrath. "But this was the closest thing."

Kane attacked Corbett, who as attorney general had started the investigation, for not arresting Sandusky after the first victim came forward, and vowed a full review.

Corbett has defended his actions and suggested Kane's review was "political in nature."

But the strategy paid off. Kane not only gave Freed a sound 14-point Election Night drubbing, she outperformed top-ticket Democrats like U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and President Obama. She even won reliably Republican counties like Clinton and Cambria - both near Penn State.

Now, as she prepares to head to Harrisburg next year, talk of her future persists.

"This was not a lipstick-on-a-pig campaign," said Cohen, the cable executive. "She is the real deal, not only as an attorney general candidate but someone that could have a real future in the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania."

Less clear is what role party elders will play in it.

"She very clearly was not their candidate in the primary," Balaban said. "And I don't think that has changed radically since."