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The real Tom Corbett emerges

HARRISBURG — There have been few really good moments for Gov. Tom Corbett in his race for re-election against York Democrat Tom Wolf. But the debate last Monday before the Chamber of Business and Industry was clearly one of them.

Corbett, a Shaler Republican, was relaxed and combative in showing Wolf had few answers about his tax “fairness” plan. Wolf no doubt had been advised not to be pinned down on details. Having led in virtually every poll since he entered the race, Wolf has become the de facto incumbent in this race and Corbett is akin to the challenger. Wolf has led Corbett by an average of 17.4 percentage points based on polls by five groups since mid-August, according to RealClearPolitics.com.

Neither Corbett nor Wolf is a dynamic speaker; the bar was pretty low for Corbett. But like a man with nothing to lose, Corbett was loose and aggressive. The governor is believed by many to be the first governor eligible to seek a second term who might not win. Under the 1968 Pennsylvania Constitution, the late Democrat Gov. Milton Shapp, elected in 1970, won two terms as have all four governors since. A Quinnipiac University pollster this month called Corbett a “dead man walking.”

Corbett's own fundraising letters to Republicans say he is the “most targeted GOP governor in America.” But on stage last week in Hershey before an admittedly friendly crowd, Corbett for the first time I've seen in almost four years was able to shed the yoke of his governor suit and face. Part of Corbett's problem is voters don't like him. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that when he steps before a microphone, he is stiff and formal. In person — one on one or before small groups — he can be very likeable.

Corbett managed to keep smiling. Afterward, Rep. Pete Daley, D-Washington County, told Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer that Wolf “did horribly” and Corbett was “exceptional.” Wolf stuck to a rope-a-dope script but he should have tried to land a few good zingers.

The race after all isn't really about Wolf.

It's a referendum on Corbett, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.

Relatively few Pennsylvanians watch debates — this was broadcast on the Pennsylvania Cable News network — and they do little to change voter opinions, said Christopher Borick, a pollster from Muhlenberg College.

Corbett will be using the debates in ads.

“Despite a lackluster performance, Wolf is probably quite content with the outcome,” Borick told me — because Wolf managed to bob and weave away from specifics.

Borick said Wolf at times was “too deferential” to the governor. But, in the end, Wolf did not need a knockout.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).


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