HARRISBURG -- If the Democratic candidates for governor see a heightened threat in the rising poll numbers of businessman Tom Wolf, whose wealth has purchased unmatched TV advertising, they signaled it with compliments rather than criticisms at a debate Friday.
John Hanger, a former environmental protection secretary, offered his approval after the York County executive described employing people convicted of offenses such as possessing a small amount of marijuana.
"I do want to compliment Tom Wolf on running what is really a remarkable business," Mr. Hanger said. "I think he has just indicated again why we all respect what he's doing."
Rob McCord, the state treasurer, suggested at one point that Mr. Wolf, like he, is a "nerdy guy."
"As Frances Wolf notes, Tom Wolf and I can sit around and talk about the perfect constitutional reforms for probably four days, especially if you kept me fed," he said.
But when it came to the most obvious opening for criticism -- a question about the influence of money in politics -- no one mentioned his name. (Though U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County did note her number of contributors, as "one of the not-self-funders in this race.")
What's more, after noting that putting $10 million of his own into the race gave him "a very special perspective on this," Mr. Wolf joined his fellow Democrats in calling for campaign finance reform.
"I lament the role that money plays in democracy," he said. "I'm playing by the rules of the game as it exists right now, but I really don't like those rules, and if I were elected governor I would do everything in my power to change those rules and make sure that money is not as important as it is right now."
With less than three months until the May 20 primary, when Democrats pick their standardbearer to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett, the debate at the Hilton Harrisburg showed a field of Democrats still focused more on their mostly unified criticisms of the Republican incumbent than on their rivals for the right to challenge him.
Mr. Corbett has continued to receive low approval ratings in public polls, with a Quinnipiac University survey Wednesday showing 55 percent of voters believe the governor does not deserve a second term, compared to 34 percent who believe he does.
A trio of polls, including one from Franklin & Marshall College and another from Harper Polling, showed Mr. Wolf as the lead Democrat, either in matchups against Corbett or selections among the primary candidates.
The candidates Friday faced questions on topics of interest to their audience at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit, from single-payer health care and women's health to gun control and natural gas drilling.
Katie McGinty, the Clinton White House adviser and former state environmental chief, touted her work with energy.
Mr. McCord called for immediately boosting the state minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.70, a proposal his campaign proclaimed the "boldest minimum wage policy yet."
Ms. Schwartz, one of three women in the race, along with Ms. McGinty and Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, emphasized the potential of electing a female governor. She noted that she is the sole woman in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation.
"I'm running for governor because we need a woman," she said. "A woman governor is going to come to Harrisburg and change politics here in Harrisburg forever."
Jack Wagner, the former state auditor general who ran unsuccessfully last year for mayor, entered the race last week but did not attend the debate.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.