HARRISBURG — Sometimes, the car defines the candidate.
Three decades ago, it was Sen. Tom Daschle tooling around South Dakota in his beat-up Pontiac Ventura. More recently, Scott Brown drove a sparkling pickup truck to victory in a 2010 Senate race in Massachusetts and, this year, resurrected the truck for a Senate bid in New Hampshire.
Now, the Pennsylvania governor’s race has a standout vehicle:
Tom Wolf’s Jeep.
The Jeep Wrangler, a 2006 model with 80,000 miles on it, has gone campaign-trail viral. Even the Democratic nominee wonders whether it might be on the road to upstaging him.
“Hey, I’m the one running,” Wolf said in a phone interview Thursday.
But veteran campaign strategists say the rolling blue prop is golden — and helped cement Wolf’s win last month in the primary.
The Jeep has been featured in no fewer than four TV and Internet ads, including one simply titled “Tom’s Jeep.”
On primary night, Wolf and his wife, Frances, pulled onto the York baseball stadium field in the Jeep to great fanfare. While the Wolfs greeted fans in the stands, others rushed to pose for selfies — with the Jeep. And now the vehicle’s popularity is inspiring counterattacks by Republicans.
An anonymous opponent launched a Twitter account, @TomWolfsJeep, to poke fun at Wolf and his ride.
Gov. Corbett’s reelection campaign released an ad featuring a broken-down Jeep and a revved-up full-size pickup to tamp down the Jeep-mania.
Wolf’s commercials “were the best ads in Pennsylvania — and I’ve made 7,000 ads,” said Neil Oxman, the Philadelphia Democratic campaign strategist, who is not involved in this governor’s race. “Wolf made his campaign about his likability, and the ads made him the overwhelming nominee.”
The brainchild of Philadelphia media consultant Saul Shorr, the Jeep ads hit the airwaves early this year, solidifying the Wolf narrative: He may be a millionaire businessman, but he drives an ordinary vehicle.
The ads rocketed Wolf from the bottom to the top of a crowded Democratic field, giving him a double-digit lead that even the early favorites couldn’t break.
In “Tom’s Jeep,” Wolf’s mechanic wonders how his client, if he wins, could possibly think about taking a stick-shift Jeep to Harrisburg. There are Wolf’s two daughters lovingly talking about their dad’s “midlife-crisis” purchase, the fact that cars are way down on his list of priorities in life.
In another image, there’s Wolf in a washed-out photo posing with villagers in India, as he recalls the communal vehicle was a Jeep, used only sparingly by townsfolk, often with 10 aboard at a time.
The Corbett campaign struck back this spring with a vehicle-themed ad of its own.
In “Toy Story,” a narrator with an ominous-sounding voice blames Wolf in his role as revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell for recession-era job losses, saying his record on jobs was a “car wreck.”
Along comes a diesel truck leaving a broken-down Jeep in the dust as the narrator says Corbett is “driving Pennsylvania to a brighter future.”
“The Jeep — a symbol of what we don’t know about Secretary Wolf,” said Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman. “He’s run a made-for-TV campaign, financed by bank loans, and there’s still a lot Pennsylvanians don’t know about him.”
For his part, Wolf says the Jeep is no campaign prop, just the reliable vehicle that carries him 14 miles each day round trip to work at the Wolf Organization, the largest supplier of kitchen cabinets in the nation.
“I abandoned the minivan in 2007 and bought the Jeep used,” said Wolf. “It’s no-frills.”
While Chrysler Jeep touts the “go-anywhere” nature of the four-wheel-drive vehicle, Wolf says he generally sticks to short trips on paved roads. (His wife drives a Ford Escape.)
Long before the ads aired, Wolf liked to tell the story of starting his job as state revenue secretary in 2007 and pulling his Jeep into the designated parking spot near the Capitol. A security guard came by, sized up the vehicle, and told him he couldn’t park there because that was the secretary’s spot.
Chrysler Jeep spokeswoman Lisa Barrow said she had not seen the ads and declined to weigh in on the role of the Jeep in the Pennsylvania governor’s race. But, she said, the Jeep is popular among a certain off-road-driving crowd who are quick to spot a fellow Jeep enthusiast (hence, the popular vehicle stencil: “It’s a Jeep Thing; You Wouldn’t Understand”).
“If you drive a Wrangler, there’s the Wrangler wave,” Barrow said, describing what Jeep owners do when they drive past each other. “It attracts all types of people who are active, whatever their passion is.”
Expect to see more of the Wolf Jeep as the general-election campaign gets underway — on both sides.
Members of the Corbett and Wolf teams declined to give specifics, other than to say it’s not the end of the road for the Jeep.
This weekend, in fact, the Wolfs planned to head to Butler in Western Pennsylvania, where the Jeep — first developed for the military in World War II — was invented more than 70 years ago.
The occasion? The Jeep Invasion, the opening event of the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, where several thousand “Jeepers” were expected to make the annual pilgrimage to trade stories, kick up some mud, and celebrate the birthplace of their beloved vehicle.
(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer