By Jarrett Renshaw and James Oliphant
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Democratic Party's hopes of picking up a much-needed U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania are likely tethered to a 6-foot, 8-inch tall tattooed and goateed liberal who eschews suits for hoodies and once met with President Joe Biden wearing basketball shorts.
John Fetterman, 52, the state's lieutenant governor, is surging in opinion polls ahead of the May 17 Democratic Senate primary, shocking political observers who had predicted a close contest with U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, a moderate who party insiders view as having the best chance against Republicans in November's general election.
The state presents Democrats with perhaps their best opportunity for adding an additional Senate seat in November and blocking Republicans from winning a majority. The Senate is currently split 50-50, but Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote gives Democrats a majority.
"People right now don't want a typical candidate. They want a rock and roller, and he's a rock and roller," Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania, said of Fetterman.
Fetterman's favored campaign outfit of a hoodie and gym shorts makes him relatable in rural working-class regions of the state - areas that Democrats had largely ceded to Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump.
He has also proven to be an adept fundraiser and is a social media force, with more than 420,000 followers on Twitter, where he has cultivated a punchy persona. He recently used the platform to ding fellow Democrat Senator Joe Manchin for blocking the party's legislative agenda in Washington.
The Harvard University masters graduate sports tattoos on both arms, including a long list on his right arm of the dates of people killed in the small town of Braddock when he was mayor from 2006 to 2019.
"I do not look like a typical politician, nor do I look like a typical person. I don’t mean to look scary, it’s just kind of what I have to work with," Fetterman said in a blog post last year. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
When Fetterman met with Biden at the site of a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh in the midst of winter earlier this year he wore his trademark shorts and hoodie, drawing attention on social media.
He supports a long list of progressive items, such as government-run universal healthcare and taxing the wealthy to pay for expanding the social safety net. He is a long-time supporter of legalizing marijuana and backs suspending the federal gas tax to help consumers wrestling with inflation.
The state party establishment views Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and ex-Marine, as a safer choice to take on the Republican nominee in the battle to replace retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey. Lamb received major endorsements from party stalwarts, while Fetterman has received almost none.
But a statewide poll by Franklin & Marshall College in May had Fetterman up almost 40 points over Lamb, with 22% still undecided.
Lamb has tried to paint Fetterman and his more progressive views as an easy target for any Republican opponent. A super PAC supporting Lamb derided Fetterman as a "democratic socialist" in the mode of progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, although Fetterman does not describe himself that way.
One clear sign of the grassroots enthusiasm for Fetterman is in the almost $15 million he has raised for his campaign. About 64% has come from donors contributing $200 or less, according to the Federal Election Commission. Of the $5.7 million Lamb has raised, only about 12% came from small donors.
Should Fetterman win the primary, he could face celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz in the general election, making it a race of two anti-establishment candidates. Polls show the Trump-endorsed Oz with a slight lead over Republican challengers, who include political commentator Kathy Barnette and former hedge fund manager David McCormick.
Jared Leopold, a Pennsylvania-based political consultant, said Fetterman was presenting himself as an "underdog outsider who talks about ignored communities."
A Fetterman TV ad refers to "ghost towns" in the state, with the candidate saying, "No one deserves to be abandoned."
"His outsider message is a good message for Democrats in a tough year," Leopold said, adding that Fetterman's down-to-earth persona has helped him to bridge a gap in his party between moderate and progressive voters. "His campaign has been focused on telling a story rather than getting in ideological fights."
One question dogging Fetterman is whether he can galvanize Black voters, a critical voting bloc for any Democrat hoping to win statewide in Pennsylvania.
Black leaders and his rivals for the nomination have questioned a 2013 incident when Fetterman chased a black jogger with a shotgun after hearing gunshots outside his home in Braddock. Fetterman held the man until police arrived.
Fetterman has said he thought the individual might be fleeing a shooting and did not know the race or gender of the jogger at the time. He noted that he was re-elected afterward as mayor of Braddock, a majority-Black community. The jogger, Christopher Miyares, who is serving time in prison, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that he hopes Fetterman wins the Senate race.
Rendell said Republicans might think Fetterman will be easier to beat than Lamb because they can characterize him more easily as a leftist.
"But if they think he's gonna be easy to beat, they are sadly mistaken," he said.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and James Oliphant; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)