Primary 2014 / Wolf seen as Dems' darling to take on Corbett

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Tom Wolf entered the election year with name recognition and party support that was within the margin of error of invisible. Five months later, polls suggest he is poised to seize the Democratic nomination for governor by a commanding margin in Tuesday's primary.

The York County businessman surged to his lead through a compelling personal and professional story amplified by early and abundant advertising that overwhelmed a strong field of competitors for the right to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett. His ability to steal a march on rivals with strong credentials and more extensive public records was enabled by the depth of a war chest that included more than $10 million of his own money.

Katie McGinty, a former secretary of environmental resources, was actually the first candidate to air a commercial in the race. But her ad volume was modest.

For weeks after Mr. Wolf launched his ads in January, he essentially had the airwaves to himself. By the time the time his leading competitors' commercials debuted, his support had soared to the point that he seemed inoculated against increasingly sharp attacks.

Campaign rhythms are typically marked by ups and downs. G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College scholar who has directed polls of Pennsylvania races for decades, said the unique aspect of this race was that once Mr. Wolf made his breakthrough, nothing changed.

The latest F&M poll found that Mr. Wolf's double-digit lead remained stable through weeks of competitive advertising and rivals' criticisms.

An independent survey released Friday by Muhlenberg College and the Allentown Morning Call told a similar story, showing Mr. Wolf's support at 37 percent among likely Democratic voters, followed by U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, 14 percent; state Treasurer Rob McCord, 9 percent; and Ms. McGinty, 5 percent.

The Corbett campaign has shown its assessment of its likely opponent with an unusually early campaign of TV ads and an extensive direct-mail campaign attacking Mr. Wolf.

His party rivals, of course, insist the race is not over.

Mr. McCord spent the final days of the campaign in a statewide bus tour, hoping to capitalize on the party ties and union support. Ms. Schwartz, who relinquished what would have been an almost certain re-election to another House term -- and with it a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means committee -- to make this run, was tending to her base in Philadelphia and its suburbs, hoping for a big turnout there.

Ms. McGinty, whose campaign has won praise for its energy and positive tone, mingled with Strip District shoppers Saturday in search of last-minute deciders, and appeared at a get-out-the-vote rally in the Hill District before heading back to the Southeastern Pennsylvania base she shares with Mr. McCord and Ms. Schwartz.

McCord's ground game

In the face of the daunting poll numbers, the McCord campaign hoped its organizational support from party figures and the labor movement would still bring him to victory in what is expected to be a low-turnout election. After an appearance in Lawrenceville Saturday, Mr. McCord said his campaign had shifted some of its eleventh-hour spending away from TV to door-to-door efforts.

"Our team came to the conclusion that our path to victory has to do with the largest, best-organized grass-roots, volunteer driven operation in the history of non-presidential politics in the last half century," he said.

Ms. Schwartz maintained that her support from women across the state and her deep roots in a region with the state's largest pool of Democratic voters could still contain the ingredients for an upset.

While her rivals crisscrossed the state, she focused her time in the closing days on that base.

The last-minute stumping came after a campaign marked by general unanimity on issues and ideology. Beyond their common criticism of the Republican incumbent, the Democrats largely agreed on the need for an increase in state education funding, on the desirability of imposing a severance tax on the burgeoning natural gas industry, and on embracing the expansion of Medicaid available under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The campaign rhetoric focused instead on the biographies of the candidates.

Ms. Schwartz, whom many considered the front-runner going into the race, reminded voters of her roles as a state senator who had founded a women's health clinic in Philadelphia, helped enact the state's pioneering children's health program and worked to support the passage of Obamacare in her senior position in the House Democratic caucus.

Mr. McCord said his background as a high-tech entrepreneur helped bring business principles to the treasurer's office. He also boasted that he was the only one of the candidates who had battled the governor directly, on issues such as the failed effort to privatize the management of the lottery.

After being elected treasurer twice, Mr. McCord is the only candidate who has won a statewide race.

Ms. McGinty sells herself as the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer who had won scholarships to college and law school before becoming a senior environmental official in the Clinton administration and, after that, headed the state's Department of Environmental Protection. But with the campaign's most modest fund-raising, she has struggled to project her message and consistently trailed in the polls.

Mr. Wolf sells his record as a candidate without a traditional political background.

He has been a major contributor to Democratic campaigns and a civic leader in York, but this is the first time he has run for elected office.

After earning a Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he and two cousins purchased the family business, a kitchen and bath cabinet supplier. He sold it in 2006, before the economy put it on the edge of insolvency. He went on to serve as state revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell, but went back to the firm in 2009 and altered its business model, returning it to profitability.

That business record is the basis of his case for why he would be an effective state leader. It also has been a lightning rod for criticism from his party rivals and the Corbett campaign. While he paints it as a story of how he rescued a troubled business, critics say Mr. Wolf's own decisions placed the firm in jeopardy.

Walking into Rollier's Hardware in Mt. Lebanon last Thursday, Mr. Wolf received a by-now familiar greeting: "Hey, I saw you on television."

"Sorry about that," he said with a smile.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Mr. McCord tried to make the case that Mr. Wolf displayed a blind spot on racial issues through his onetime association with a former York mayor who was charged but acquitted of being an accomplice to the death of a black women in a notorious race riot in 1969.

Mr. Wolf protested that he was serving in the Peace Corps in India at the time of the riots and has showcased his support from a variety of African-American leaders, including the current York mayor, in rebutting the attacks.

If Mr. Wolf were to win the nomination Tuesday and go on to prevail in the general election, he would be the first governor since the late Milton Shapp to capture the state's top job without having held another significant elected office.

Another similarity between Mr. Wolf and Shapp: Both were millionaire businessman who leveraged their own fortunes in bids for political victory.

In his book "Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday," Paul Beers notes that Shapp spent $2.6 million of his own money in his successful 1970 run for governor. Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of roughly $16 million today, outpacing even Mr. Wolf's lavish investment in this campaign.

Shapp also spent freely in his first unsuccessful campaign for the office in 1966, when he defeated Robert P. Casey for the Democratic nomination before losing to the late Gov. Raymond Shafer. Shapp presided over the enactment of the state's first income tax, and fought unsuccessfully for a progressive income tax rather than the flat-rate levy that still exists.

Mr. Wolf has advocated a form of a progressive income tax designed to comply with a state constitutional mandate for equal treatment of taxpayers. A progressive income tax on the model used by the federal government and many other states would violate that provision. Mr. Wolf would instead seek passage of a tax with a substantial but uniform exemption. While he has not spelled out the exact level of the deduction or the companion tax rate, it would be designed to lighten the tax burden on lower incomes while increasing the liability for more affluent taxpayers.

There are obvious differences between the two businessmen as well. The combative Shapp billed himself a "the man against the machine." Mr. Wolf projects more placid image.

In debates and in campaign appearances, he has avoided criticism of his Democratic rivals, shrugging off their attacks while passing up opportunities to counterpunch.

He sidestepped one more opportunity to return opponents' criticism Thursday. Asked for his reaction to the rougher tone of the campaign's closing weeks, he blandly said, "It seems to me this was the kind of campaign I've seen other candidates go through."

The other races

Tuesday's balloting also will determine, in a separate contest, who will share the Democratic ticket in the fall. Both Mr. Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley are unopposed for renomination on the Republican ballot. In a little noted and apparently wide-open race, five Democrats are competing for the second spot. They include state Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia; state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington; former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown; Harrisburg city Councilman Brad Koplinski; and Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith.

Despite dismal poll numbers for Congress as a whole, incumbents face challenges in only two of the state's U.S. House districts. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Altoona, faces divided opposition in the GOP primary in the 9th District from Art Halvorson and Travis Schooley. In the 14th District, which includes Pittsburgh, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a veteran Democrat, has a repeat challenge from Janis C. Brooks, whom he defeated overwhelmingly two years ago.

In the redrawn 12th Congressional District, businesswoman Erin McClelland is competing with former congressional aide John Hugya for the opportunity to face U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.

Half the state Senate and all state House seats are on the ballot. There are no competitive state Senate races in the region. Among the local House races that have attracted the most attention are the 36th District where two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany, were forced into a primary race by redistricting; and the 20th District, where Rep. Adam Ravenstahl faces Tom Michalow, a former Avalon councilman.

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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