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Swann Song

Journos and pols are drawn to the siren call of a celebrity candidate

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And to think: We used to laugh at California.

If you're like me, that's the first thought you had upon hearing that Steelers Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann was pondering a run for governor in 2006, despite not having a day's worth of experience in public office. If you're like me, you rolled your eyes at the sports puns the news has already generated -- "To run or pass?" one headline asked -- and cringed at the thought of those it could create in the future.

And if you're like me, you might just be a smug asshole in for an unpleasant surprise.

Swann hasn't even formally declared his candidacy. All he's done is tell state Republicans that he's weighing the possibility. But the news met a warm reception (there's a football pun already!): Both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review ran friendly pieces about Swann's ambitions. Both noted that Swann's opponent, Gov. Ed Rendell, is a well-known Philadelphia Eagles booster, establishing a precedent for countless football metaphors if Swann runs. Both included quotes from not one but two white Republicans who credit Swann with being "articulate." (That's how we clueless white guys say, "See? We're not racist! We can credit black people with smarts!") A Post-Gazette editorial similarly called Swann "well spoken."

There's still a question, of course, about what Swann has to say.

While news stories have noted that Swann spoke at this summer's Republican National Convention, none have reported what he actually spoke about. (For those interested, Swann and pixyish figure skater Dorothy Hamill took on the thorny issue of...physical fitness. They are both in favor of it.) Swann made appearances with George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign, and he's made a handful of campaign contributions to more moderate Republicans like Arlen Specter and Pete Coors, the slightly creepy Colorado beer magnate who narrowly lost a Senate bid this fall. But no one knows where Swann himself stands on the issues.

Maybe no one cares. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura proved that name recognition is enough to overcome liabilities, such as a total absence of a political platform or relevant experience. Actually, those might not be liabilities at all, at least for voters who don't pay attention to policy, or who think government itself is the problem.

The irony of such campaigns, of course, is that whenever a Hollywood actor speaks out about the Iraq War, for example, conservatives ridicule the notion that celebrities know enough to criticize the government. Celebrities running government apparently presents less of a problem, provided they do so as Republicans.

Supposedly, Pennsylvania voters are a bit more discerning than Californians, or even star-struck journalists, when it comes to judging politicians. The theory is that we expect them to prove themselves before we elect them. I'm not sure how that theory squares with the political career of, say, Catherine Baker Knoll. But if you're the state GOP, maybe you don't care whether Swann has a chance.

No incumbent governor has lost a re-election bid in more than 30 years, and Rendell is especially formidable. So why not pick Swann to run? His leading Republican opponent would likely be state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, who not only isn't as famous as Swann -- he's not even as well known as Mike Fisher, the former state attorney general who Rendell trampled in 2002.

And imagine how much a joint appearance with Swann would help U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who'll also be running in 2006. Win or lose, Swann offers Republicans a chance to make an overture to black voters. That's the kind of outreach that pays dividends down the road...and the kind of outreach Democrats often fail to make.

Swann will likely prove to be an amorphously moderate Republican, and who knows? He might just turn out to be a great candidate. But even if he decides not to run, just mentioning him as a potential contender is a no-lose proposition if you're the GOP. But if you're like me, it's disturbing to see how much attention a candidate with no political credentials can get, especially when he isn't even running for office -- yet. 

Because remember: We used to laugh at California.

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