HARRISBURG - The next year is make or break for Gov. Corbett.
It will help decide whether the Republican governor sails to a second four-year term, or labors to beat back a challenge from Democrats or from within his own party.
So say Corbett's advisers and confidantes, who for months have been watching intently from the sidelines as the governor has struggled to bridge what they see as a disconnect between his work and the public's perception of his job performance, and of him personally.
Granted, his first two years as chief executive have been anything but easy, marked by a distressed economy and difficult budget cuts - neither conducive to bringing out his administration's politically warm and fuzzy side.
But real political and policy challenges remain for him in the coming year, the last before he runs for reelection. How effectively he responds will be key to his political survival, analysts say.
For his part, Corbett said he spent the first half of his term fulfilling promises made on the campaign trail, such as raising no taxes and - for the first time in Pennsylvania in almost a decade - delivering annual budgets on time.
"I kept my promises," Corbett said last week in an interview with reporters in his office. "This is what I told you I was going to do."
He compared his administration's push to clamp down on what he has called runaway spending to the father who sets an 11 p.m. curfew for his children and makes them eat their vegetables. It may not make him popular in the short term, but he believes it will produce a fiscally stronger state in the years to come.
"I got elected as governor based upon promises I made and my record as attorney general," said Corbett, who was the state's top lawyer before running for governor. "I think I will get reelected based upon the promises I kept and the campaign for governor and the performance I continue going forward."
The polls have told a different story. Public approval of Corbett's job performance sagged below 30 percent in an August survey, though his numbers have edged up in recent months. The bump Corbett enjoyed for his handling of Hurricane Sandy left him with a narrow 40-percent-to-38-percent approval edge in a November poll.Those closest to him say Corbett's problem is, simply, a public relations one. He has a story to tell but hasn't always told it.
Take the legislation to impose a fee on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Despite a fury of criticism from Democrats, the measure has emerged as one of the administration's key accomplishments with the legislature. Yet when it came time to sign the bill, Corbett did so alone in the privacy of his office with no fanfare.
By not standing on the public stage to sell his agenda or accomplishments, advisers say, Corbett has made it easier for his critics to shape the debate.
"He's done more in two years than other governors have done in two terms. Problem is, nobody knows it," said one close adviser who asked to remain anonymous. "If he gets the message out, he will get reelected. And if he doesn't, he won't."
It may be a bit more complicated.
Corbett's relations with the legislature are tentative, even though both chambers are controlled by his fellow Republicans. In many ways, he and they still don't trust each other.
"We all have to do a better job in selling what we are doing," said State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery), a Corbett ally. "We have accomplished core things that are important to people. We need to be more articulate about it and stop trying to outpace each other."
Also souring the relationship is the fact that Corbett hails from a different managerial background. As attorney general, when he asked for something to be done, it was done. The governor's job often comes down to an elaborate game of compromise while tiptoeing through a minefield of egos. And the latter has been an adjustment for Corbett.
Perhaps that was why, when asked whether he liked his job, Corbett mused on the advantages of his old post.
"I jokingly say that as attorney general, 90 percent of the people like you, 10 percent don't," he said Thursday, "and they're probably the ones you either put in jail or sued."
By all accounts, his administration is gearing up to tackle big-ticket items in the next year, including public-employee pension reform and privatizing the state lottery. Also on Corbett's wish list: liquor privatization and transportation funding.
At the same time, items such as pensions, the liquor question, and the need for highway funding also serve as reminders of major issues that were not resolved successfully in the first half of his term. He will need big policy wins on some of these to demonstrate he has overcome the leadership stumbles that dogged his first two years.
All that while continuing to balance the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Though the matter has little to do with his work as governor, Corbett's role as the attorney general who launched the investigation into Sandusky has become a lightning rod for the anger and frustration the scandal has caused.
Democratic critics say his office was too slow to prosecute. They claim that by kicking the matter to a grand jury, which often takes longer to bring charges, Corbett avoided having a controversial case play out while he was running for governor in 2010. He has denied such suggestions, pointing out the painstaking nature of child-sex-abuse investigations.
Democratic Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane has vowed to review the office's handling of the Sandusky investigation. Corbett says he is not worried about the review and is likely to cooperate. But his handlers privately say they are fearful of the impact it could have on his image: Kane ran harder against Corbett and his handling of the Sandusky case than she did against her Republican rival. And her landslide victory snuffed any doubts that the issue still resonates deeply and viscerally with many voters.
"I think the way Gov. Corbett as attorney general handled these prosecutions is relatively unassailable," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant in Harrisburg. "But that doesn't mean there's not a political problem here. And I'm not sure what the path is to overcome it is, other than the passage of time."
In the meantime, Democrats have sensed vulnerability and begun circling. One, former state environmental secretary John Hanger, launched his run for governor last week even though the party's 2014 primary is roughly a year and a half away. Several other Democrats, including Philadelphia millionaire Tom Knox and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, have expressed various degrees of interest in a run. And one Republican businessman and donor from York, Scott Wagner, who makes no secret of his dissatisfaction with Corbett, could challenge him as well, possibly as an independent.
Despite the growing field, Corbett was resolute last week.
"Maybe I won't get reelected," he said. "But remember, when I campaigned, I said, 'I'm going to do what's necessary.' If it's four years, it's four years. If it's eight years, it's eight years."