The Gene Mc Carthy Of The War On Abortion?

Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey doesn't let go easily. He lost three gubernatorial races--once at least partly because another candidate had the same name--before he finally triumphed in 1986. Then, last year, he nearly died of a rare liver disease. Only a risky heart-and-liver transplant saved his life--and eventually allowed him to reassume power.

Still frail after his ordeal, the two-term governor would seem due for some convalescence. Instead, Casey, 63, is embarking on a campaign to open up a place in the Democratic Party for religious and pro-life candidates. To rebuild what he views as a repressed wing of his party, Casey says he's considering a run against President Clinton next year for the Democratic nomination. "The Democratic Party is viewed as a launching pad for assaults on basic American values," he gripes on a plane from Harrisburg to Scranton on Jan. 16, his last day as governor. "Anyone who has my perspective is silenced."

SWING BLOC. Casey likely would have little chance of winning the Presidency. But he could make life miserable for Clinton. The nightmare scenario for the President: Casey could attract millions of voters in the key right-wing swing bloc within the Democratic Party. And as Republican Patrick J. Buchanan did to President Bush in 1992 and Eugene McCarthy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1968, he could shine a spotlight on a vulnerable President's weaknesses in the early Presidential primaries. If Casey can't win, he might create an opening for a stronger Democratic challenger, much as McCarthy did for Robert F. Kennedy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Casey believes the Democrats lost last November's elections on moral issues. He maintains that a clique of leftists around Clinton are bent on driving values and God out of the American debate. But pointing to references to God in the Declaration of Independence and recalling Franklin Roosevelt leading the nation in prayer on D day, Casey says: "That's who we are, a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being." Such remarks won him thunderous ovations when--as the lone Democrat--he spoke to a Christian Coalition gathering last fall. He's not fund-raising yet, but he probably will get strong support from such groups if he challenges Clinton.

But if Casey is conservative on values, he sees government as vigorously activist. He boasts of spending more on clean water than any governor in the country, providing health insurance for 40,000 poor children, reviving steel mills--all while leaving the state with a budget surplus. These programs, along with sympathy following his surgery, make Casey the most popular outgoing governor in three decades, even if his tough environmental policies and a $3 billion tax hike in 1991 made him few friends in business.

Clinton and Casey have been battling since the 1992 Democratic Convention. Casey wanted to address the gathering, but he refused to support Clinton first. Clinton's team denied him the spot. Further, says Casey, they invited Kathy Taylor, a pro-choice Pennsylvania Republican who had supported his opponent two years earlier, to speak. "They rubbed my nose in it," says Casey, who never did endorse Clinton.

STONG HEART. As Clinton marched on to the White House, Casey's star dimmed. He grew thinner and weaker, his liver disease apparently killing him. But in June, 1993, surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center performed a successful double transplant.

Barred from running for a third term, Casey foucsed on a national pro-life agenda. Last fall, with his recovery well along, he infuriated state Democrats by refusing to support pro-choice candidates, including his lieutenant governor, Mark S. Singel, and Harris Wofford, whom he appointed to replace late Republican Senator John Heinz.

Early this month, Casey's surgeons assured him his new organs are doing well. He now takes a single anti-rejection pill a day, and doctors say his life expectancy is normal. "Everything looks good. His heart is stronger now than when it was put in," says Dr. John Fung, one of his surgeons.

Casey, his wife, Ellen, and their eight children are mulling whether he should make a serious run for the White House. "Somebody's got to do it," he says. He knows his health will be an issue. But even if he can't mount a Bobby Kennedy-style challenge to Clinton, a Casey candidacy still could be as damaging as those of McCarthy and Buchanan.

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