- Associated Press - Thursday, April 24, 2014

MEDIA, Pa. (AP) - Gov. Tom Corbett is attacking two of his weakest polling points, his job approval by women voters and his efforts on education, with possibly just token opposition in the Republican primary and the general election looming less than seven months away.

On Thursday, he attended the kickoff of a women’s committee that will be tapped to help lead efforts to attract women supporters to Corbett’s re-election campaign.

Corbett attended with his wife, Susan, who told a crowd of about 60 gathered in a dimly lit restaurant in Media, a Philadelphia suburb, that her husband has a strong record on education. The appearance comes a few days after the campaign released a statewide TV ad in which Susan Corbett does the talking and stresses her husband’s commitment to education.

Part of the new message is an effort to push back against criticism from school groups and the four Democratic candidates for governor of his budget-balancing cuts to aid to schools in his first budget year, 2011, amid rising public pension costs and the expiration of the federal government’s recessionary budget aid to states.

“Now I’m sure you’ve heard the commercials and the accusations from opponents of massive cuts to education and it’s important as leaders of this campaign that you know the facts,” Susan Corbett told the crowd.

She went on to deliver a figure that is new to the campaign, that Corbett has increased his “education budget” in every single year, by a total of $1.5 billion. State funding for education, she said, is at its all-time high and Pennsylvania is one of the top states for per-pupil education funding.

Her contention that Corbett increased the education budget, however, is selective. It does not count aid to higher education, which is lower than it was three years ago. Based on the campaign’s explanation, the figure also apparently counts proposed money in Corbett’s 2014-15 budget plan that has not been approved by the Legislature and it does not count the federal aid for public schools that was expiring as Corbett took office three years ago. Counting that federal aid, the education budget remains smaller right now. In any case, the $1.5 billion figure is mostly made up of higher payments to public school employee pensions, not direct aid to schools for classroom instruction and building operations.

Corbett told the crowd that it is a “fiction” that he cut education spending, and said the federal government’s aid should never have gone to the operating budgets of school districts.

For Corbett, who ran as a pro-business fiscal conservative in 2010 and has battled public-sector unions for much of his term, the shift toward education is a break from the campaign message of fiscal discipline and economic accomplishments his campaign has favored thus far.

But the general election is a little over six months away and there is no sign yet that Corbett is breaking a long string of lackluster performances in independent polls.

A Quinnipiac University survey of 1,405 registered voters released Feb. 26 showed that 34 percent believed Corbett deserved to be re-elected, versus 55 percent who did not. But of the women surveyed, just 31 percent believed he deserved re-election, versus 38 percent of men.

Just 30 percent of those surveyed approved of his handling of education.

Asked after the event why he polls poorly among women, Corbett said that part of it is the need to get his campaign message heard.

“We’ve tried and it’s hard,” Corbett said. “And that’s why you have a coalition like this. We need them to go out there and talk to the people at the grassroots level to educate them about what we really have done as compared to, oh, what, $3 million worth of public-sector union ads that have been used against me over the course of the last three-and-a-half years.”

In the Quinnipiac poll, education came in second place as the voters’ most important topic.