By PETER JACKSON
HARRISBURG - In a field oozing with political ambition and pent-up energy, Pennsylvania's Democratic candidates for governor will ring in the new year without a clear front-runner.
The eight would-be nominees share the goal of ousting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in the general election, but only now are they girding for the intraparty battle that will culminate in the May 20 Democratic primary.
A couple of fast-approaching milestones should boost the candidates' visibility and provide the first tangible comparison of their financial strength.
One is the Jan. 31 filing deadline for the first round of campaign finance reports, in which candidates must itemize how much they received in contributions and identify the contributors. Already, speculation about how much money the candidates have raised is rampant.
Businessman Tom Wolf, a former state revenue secretary, announced earlier this month that his campaign had raised $2.9 million in addition to the $10 million of his own that he has pledged to pump into the campaign. None of the other campaigns made similar disclosures.
"The fundraising is going to be what drives our ability to communicate with voters" in TV ads, but is not necessarily an indicator of electoral success, said Mark Nevins, a campaign spokesman for Rob McCord, the state treasurer. Still, he said, "it is a perception game and you never want to be on the wrong side of the perception."
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who claims to have the early lead and transferred $3 million from her past campaigns into the current one, has played down expectations of a large fundraising total and said she expects to be outspent by Wolf and McCord.
"We lead the race because of our strong base" in the heavily Democratic Philadelphia region, said campaign spokesman Mark Bergman.
Also important is the Feb. 8 Democratic State Committee meeting to consider endorsing a candidate, even though the action would require a two-thirds majority vote - a threshold most campaign officials said is probably unachievable in such a crowded race.
"It's extremely difficult to get a two-thirds vote with two candidates, let alone eight," said Mike Mikus, campaign manager for Katie McGinty, a former state environmental protection secretary. "They're going to have more money, but Katie's going to have enough money."
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week reaffirmed Corbett's low job-approval rating - a majority of respondents disapproved - and showed most of the Democratic candidates beating or running about even with Corbett in hypothetical one-on-one matchups.
The poll results drew a mixed reaction from the campaigns.
"The big take-away for us is that Katie is right there with people who have been running for office for a long time," said Mikus, of the McGinty campaign.
Mark Nicastre, the Wolf campaign spokesman, said the poll shows the race is "pretty wide open" and that Wolf is preparing to step up his campaign early in the new year.
"Across the board, there'll be an uptick in campaign activity," he said, "and we'll be one of the more active campaigns."
If there's any doubt the race is wide open, consider that the only Democrat who the poll showed beating Corbett by more than eight percentage points isn't even in the race. Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who is still weighing his options, beat him by 12 points.
Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.