PITTSBURGH - Tuesday is the Pennsylvania primary, and candidates for Pittsburgh mayor were out Sunday trying to gather last-minute support.
According to a poll by Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE, City Councilman Bill Peduto grabbed the front-runner status he once claimed to have in the Pittsburgh mayoral race, seizing on growing disapproval of chief opponent Jack Wagner in the campaign's bitter, final weeks.
Peduto surged ahead of Wagner to stake a 42 percent to 33 percent lead among 400 likely voters a week before the decisive Democratic primary on Tuesday, according to the poll by Susquehanna Polling and Research.
The poll shows a 9-point gain for Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze and a 7-point drop for Wagner, 65, of Beechview since an April 1-2 survey by the Harrisburg firm.
“It looks to me like whatever the Wagner folks have done might have backfired,” said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research. “All the movement has clearly gone to Peduto.”
Wagner spokesman J.J. Abbott said Peduto's advertising has impacted the race but Wagner has the chance to sway undecided voters to him.
“We've put considerable resources since the poll was taken to change the conversation, and I think that will show,” Abbott said. “We've had a strong week in terms of pushing back.”
“I think the difference between then and now is Bill's ability to connect with voters,” said Peduto spokeswoman Sonya Toler. “When he gets that opportunity to talk to people, they turn in his favor.”
Both campaigns said they would focus on Sunday and Monday on “get out the vote” efforts, noting that voter turnout could make the difference. Peduto will “be out on the street,” Toler said, and Wagner scheduled 20 events between Friday and Tuesday to allow him and about 400 volunteers to meet people, Abbott said.
Peduto held a cookout Sunday at his Brighton Heights headquarters. He said he’s focusing on getting people in Pittsburgh neighborhoods to get out and vote.
“I think people are ready for change. I think that’s what it comes down to and they’re optimistic about a message that we put out that’s positive,” Peduto said. “As the last 48 hours happen, we’re going to be all over continuing what we’ve been doing for the past two years on the street.”
Meanwhile, Wagner rallied with voters and union members at the Schenley Park ice rink on Sunday.
“There have been a number of polls. I’ve been up in some and I’ve been down in some,” Wagner said. “The poll that counts is the one on Tuesday.”
Factoring in undecided voters — one in five of whom leans toward Wagner, the Trib poll found — Peduto holds a 7-point lead over the former state auditor general who joined the race when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dropped out in March. That lead is beyond the poll's error margin of 4.88 percentage points.
Wagner would need to pull in 80 percent of undecided voters to overcome Peduto's lead, Lee said.
“It's going to be very difficult to change the dynamic of this race,” he said.
Support for long-shot candidates Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and A.J. Richardson of Sheraden remained nearly steady at 6 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Mudslinging that punctuated advertising during the past three weeks, including an anti-Peduto ad from a Republican consultant hired by a Ravenstahl political committee, impacted Wagner's popularity.
“The credibility of the mayor at this point is rapidly decreasing, and that has hurt Jack Wagner,” said Gerald Shuster, a political analyst with the University of Pittsburgh. He said Wagner has not distanced himself from Ravenstahl as a federal investigation of city spending moves closer to the mayor's office.
“We disavowed those ads,” Abbott said.
Five percent of poll respondents said TV ads changed their support from Wagner to Peduto. Only 1 percent said they changed support to Wagner.
“Why not talk about your accomplishments? Talk about what you can do to make this great city even greater,” said William Griffith, 56, of Squirrel Hill.
Griffith is among the poll's 16 percent of respondents who said they remain undecided. He said the candidate who is more negative is in danger of losing his vote.
When asked last week whether he worries that the negative tone will turn away voters, Wagner said voters should worry about Peduto's misrepresenting the truth.
“While the Peduto ads may have been considered negative by some, they were rooted in fact,” Toler said.
As the percentage of voters with an unfavorable view of Wagner nearly doubled from 13 percent in April to 24 percent in May, Peduto picked up support in nearly every demographic, Lee noted.
Wagner lost large advantages he had held in April among union households, seniors, minorities and voters outside Peduto's home base in the East End, Lee said.
“The only explanation for it is that Peduto's running a better campaign,” he said.
The candidates split many union endorsements, although Wagner garnered more support among unions representing city workers.
“Peduto is not big with the firemen, and my husband is a fireman,” said Jennifer Bichler, 38, of Brookline, who responded to the poll.
The poll found Peduto and Wagner nearly tied among voters who live in union households or who said a union endorsement might swing their vote. But Peduto lagged significantly among those voters in April, Lee said, and he has more support among non-union voters and those not influenced by the endorsements.
Nearly three-quarters of poll respondents said labor unions would not influence their choice.
Peduto increased his support among older voters — moving into a tie with Wagner among people 65 and older — while holding onto strong support among those 44 and younger.
“I'm an artist, and Bill's always been a great supporter of the arts,” said Peduto supporter Michael Cuccaro, 43, of Hazelwood. “And I work in East Liberty, and he's been a supporter of revitalizing that area.”
Watch for complete coverage with the winner Tuesday night on Channel 11 News and WPXI.com.
Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.