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Head Strong: See the moderates run

Pa. Republicans must resist the lure of the far right - or lose.

Last week Gov. Rendell told members of the national media that winning Pennsylvania requires a candidate to (a) run up the score in Philadelphia, (b) prevail in Lehigh County, and, most important, (c) win the battle for the moderate Philadelphia suburbs.

Rendell knows. That's how he won a gubernatorial primary in 2002 despite carrying just 10 of 67 counties - and nine of his wins composed the southeastern block of the state. Since 2002, things have gotten only better for Democrats in the southeast, which should bolster Barack Obama's chances.

Long-term, Democratic strength could grow even more if the moderate exodus from the GOP causes Republicans to nominate conservative candidates who cannot win general elections.

Here are the numbers: In the year preceding Pennsylvania's 2008 primary, the state Democratic Party added 326,756 voters while the GOP lost 73,009. That trend continues. Since the April 22 primary, Democrats have increased their statewide registration by 69,172 voters. Republicans, despite promises to woo back defectors, have lost 2,452.

No wonder that in Montgomery County, where Democrats have added almost 5,081 voters to their rolls since April 22, the GOP will now begin canvassing door to door, seeking to register new voters and recover lost ones - a need almost unimaginable 15 years ago. Montco now has 15,092 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Common sense suggests those jumping the fence are the more moderate members of the Republican Party. Without those voters on the rolls for a Republican primary, moderate candidates will have difficulty countering the strength of their conservative rivals, which, in turn, could lead to the nomination of candidates so far outside the mainstream that they cannot be elected in the fall.

Such a realignment, left undeterred, might assert itself in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Early indications are that the Club for Growth's Pat Toomey, Attorney General Tom Corbett, former U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan, and businessman Glen Meakem are considering running for the Republican nomination. As ideologies emerge, expect the more "liberal" of those candidates to see his chances for a primary victory diminish, while those of the more conservative candidates rise.

For whoever wins, the ultimate question will be: Can he draw support from the suburbanites, who were quick to embrace Rendell? That will be the ultimate question.

There could also be an impact on less visible statewide races. Imagine a quiet cycle in which a very conservative judicial candidate rallies supporters and captures the Republican nomination without opposition - only to have his or her views become an impediment when voters start paying real attention in the fall.

Then there is the composition of the state legislature. Last year the Democrats took control of the state House for the first time in 12 years. And if the trend toward blue finds its way into the state Senate, the balance of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation could shift as well. That's because the leaders of the General Assembly play a hands-on role in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries. It's a process Republicans took advantage of in 2001, when the GOP held majorities in both houses of the state legislature (and controlled the governor's mansion). Encouraged by former House stalwarts Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, GOP leaders from the state legislature re-carved the state's congressional boundaries, setting the tone for a four-seat swing in the state's congressional delegation in the midterm election that followed.

So much for those gains. The election of Congressmen Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak in 2006 proved that the Philadelphia suburbs were already trending Democratic, despite the GOP's creative redistricting five years earlier. Now, a state GOP that continues to defy Pennsylvania's moderate disposition will persist in its slide toward minority status in the state legislature, and forfeit any control of the next round of redistricting efforts just two years away.

In short, scenarios abound in which the GOP is rendered uncompetitive by a deficit of moderate voters.

Of course, this analysis rests on a raft of assumptions about Pennsylvanians' voting patterns. Sen. Arlen Specter was himself first elected in 1980 despite a supposed Democratic advantage of one million voters. And if John McCain accomplishes a similar feat this fall, it'll go a long way to restore the Keystone State's confidence in mainstream Republicans.

So, too, would a series of missteps early in an Obama administration similar to the rough start the Clinton presidency encountered in 1993. By 1994, two years after Clinton had interrupted the Republicans' 12-year hold on the presidency, the GOP had rebounded to orchestrate a stunning congressional coup. And with two more years yet before any meaningful statewide primary in Pennsylvania, perhaps it's too early for the party of elephants to wring its . . . do elephants have hands?

The most vibrant two-party system is one where neither party is held captive by its extreme wing. In truth, the Democratic Party has no shortage of temperate members. Moderate voters looking to ensure that their ballots truly count would be wise to stick with the GOP, though not only to ensure the nomination of moderate candidates.

Here in Pennsylvania, they could offer not only a counterweight to the whims of the Republican Party's conservative faction, but also assurance that the extraordinary tradition of moderate GOP leaders - Scranton, Scott, Schweiker and Specter - will continue to thrive in this state.