Gov. Corbett confronts negative ratings in re-election race

Governor out to remind voters they supported him before

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HARRISBURG -- Four years later, Gov. Tom Corbett is campaigning uphill as he seeks a second term as Pennsylvania's chief executive.

It's a far cry from 2010, when, as the attorney general at the head of the legislative corruption probe known as "Bonusgate," he led a Republican wave to win all but four of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. That election night, shortly before he was declared the winner, Mr. Corbett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that voters had sent a message of fiscal discipline. After funding public safety, he said, "You start looking at everything else and asking, 'What do we have left?' "

Now, with dangerously low public approval ratings and challengers pummeling him, Mr. Corbett is out to remind voters they supported him before -- and convince them they should not hand the governorship to the victor of next month's Democratic primary. Businessman Tom Wolf, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and former state environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty are competing for the nomination.

For Mr. Corbett, the challenges are real. Federal stimulus money that had been used for public education ended with Mr. Corbett's first budget, and a fight over responsibility for school funding cuts has ensnared the Capitol ever since.

Some conservatives have expressed frustration that Republican control of the executive branch and both legislative chambers has yet to result in the passage of initiatives like an overhaul of the pension systems for state and public school workers.

And even with Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State University assistant football coach, in prison, the specter of the child sexual abuse scandal remains, as Attorney General Kathleen Kane oversees a review of how the office, under Mr. Corbett, handled the investigation.

"You start building all those little things on, and lo and behold, the big picture is one of a very vulnerable incumbent," said Christopher Borick, professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. "It's like a war on many fronts."

As he sought the governorship, Mr. Corbett went beyond promises of fiscal responsibility, signing a no-new-taxes pledge promoted by national conservative activist Grover Norquist.

Once in office, he confronted a deficit his administration pegged at $4.2 billion by signing a budget that reduced year-over-year spending for the first time in decades. With the disappearance of stimulus money, schools sustained cuts that, when combined with rising pension costs and weakened local revenues, led districts to increase class sizes, reduce elective courses and decrease tutoring, according to the state associations of school business officials and administrators.

Democrats and education advocates have worked relentlessly to lay the blame on Mr. Corbett, and appear to have found success: In a February survey, Quinnipiac University found twice as many Pennsylvania voters disapproved of Mr. Corbett's handling of education as approved of it.

"Corbett's lost the narrative because of the cuts that have taken place in scores of school districts," said G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. "Education funding, rightly or wrongly, has been an albatross."

In February, Mr. Corbett broke from previous years by proposing a more generous spending plan, complete with a new $240 million grant program for K-12 schools, a scholarship fund for college students and the first increase in years for special education. In a new ad, Mr. Corbett's wife, Susan Corbett, tells voters that she and her husband worked as teachers and touts increases in state funding since his first year.

In the state House of Representatives, the Democratic leader, Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont, said Mr. Corbett's problems can be tied to his signing of the Norquist pledge.

"You take a pledge like that, it's hard to predict the conditions, what's going to happen," Mr. Dermody said. "I think it's a mistake to do that. I do believe he's governing without thought."

After months of negotiation, legislators from both parties pushed through a transportation-funding plan, backed by Mr. Corbett, that raises money in part by lifting a cap on a tax paid by fuel distributors. Some conservatives grumbled that a Republican governor and GOP-led House and Senate approved billions of dollars in new revenue but remain entangled in discussions over disbanding the system of state liquor sales and confronting the unfunded liabilities of the retirement systems for state and public school workers.

While Mr. Corbett faces no major primary challenge, the state Republican Party is backing an effort to throw off the primary ballot an activist, Bob Guzzardi, who has described Mr. Corbett and much of the party establishment as "big-government Republicans." A judge last week rejected the attempt, but the party's general counsel filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said he believes the governor's support will rise as the election approaches and voters tune in. Independent polls have found voters see jobs and the economy as the most important issue in Pennsylvania, and Mr. Gleason said the administration's record -- with an increase in private-sector jobs and cuts in government positions -- will win support.

"He became governor in a very difficult time, as did many of the governors, in the recession and facing budget problems and having to make hard decisions," Mr. Gleason said. "I wish the polls were better, but I have seen many turnarounds in polls. Election Day is when it really counts."

Pennsylvania's unemployment rate, which hovered around 8 percent at the time of Mr. Corbett's election through 2012, hit 6 percent in March, a marker the governor's re-election campaign noted several times Friday.

As a sitting governor, Mr. Corbett has opportunities unavailable to challengers, as his immediate predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, noted in an interview.

"An incumbent governor has tremendous advantages," Mr. Rendell said. "The first and foremost advantage he has is the ability to continue governing and to look nonpolitical at a time when his challenger, essentially everything he does is going to look political. The governor can govern."

And, he added, the governor can use the power of his office to raise large amounts of money, even if he is not favored to win. Without an opponent even chosen, Mr. Rendell said, Democrats should not think Mr. Corbett's polling numbers mean victory is sure.

Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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