- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The final debate among the four Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to take on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in the fall veered between responses to policy questions and efforts to bend answers into attacks on front-running first-time candidate Tom Wolf.

The debate, at Drexel University on Monday, ended a long string of more than a dozen and came eight days before the May 20 primary election. It also was in front of the candidates’ biggest TV audience - Drexel said 22 radio and TV stations carried it live - and perhaps was a last, best chance to sway the party faithful.

The Democrats agree broadly on major themes such as increasing taxes on Pennsylvania’s booming natural gas industry, increasing funding for education and raising the minimum wage. For the past month, state Treasurer Rob McCord and Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz have turned the debates away from issues and focused on attacking Wolf.

As if to underscore the nastiness of the past month, the candidates were asked at the end of the debate by moderator Larry Kane, on behalf of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, if they would attend a unity breakfast after the primary election. They each said they would.

During the debate, McCord and Schwartz were asked by debate questioners to justify their attacks.

McCord and Schwartz defended themselves by saying they were simply trying to ensure that the Democratic Party emerged from the primary with the best candidate to take on Corbett. And they repeatedly questioned whether Wolf, who has led a family-owned business for most of the last three decades and used his wealth to outspend the other candidates’ campaigns, is experienced enough to get Democratic priorities through a Republican-controlled Legislature.

“There’s just no evidence at all that being unvetted, untested in the primary is a good idea,” McCord said, before he compared Wolf to Corbett. “We’re making sure we don’t have another untested Tom.”

Wolf countered that his record speaks for itself, including his work in the nonprofit sector to improve York, where his company, the Wolf Organization, is headquartered. He cast himself as the best candidate prepared to harness Pennsylvania’s private sector and use it to improve the economy.

Wolf, who holds a doctorate in political science from MIT and served briefly as secretary of revenue under former Gov. Ed Rendell, also scoffed at the notion he is unqualified to be governor. If that is true, it is “a serious indictment of our democracy,” he said.

The fast-moving debate lasted an hour and often overshadowed former environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty, who worked to concentrate her attacks on Corbett and give the most detailed policy answers.

Perhaps her best moment occurred when she pushed aside Schwartz’s and McCord’s criticism of Wolf. Rather, voters are talking about school service cuts, the sluggish hiring environment in Pennsylvania and people losing access to state-sponsored health care under Corbett, McGinty said.

“I think we need to work time and overtime in making sure we’re addressing those main issues,” McGinty said.

While Schwartz and McCord have tried to attack Wolf a number of different ways, the most prominent issue Monday night was Wolf’s relationship with a former York mayor charged with murder and acquitted in the death of a black woman during the city’s 1969 race riots.

McCord used his time to answer a question about changing the criminal justice system to bring up the issue of the former York mayor.

The debate was briefly interrupted by an anti-drilling demonstrator who climbed on stage. The four candidates are not in favor of stopping the booming exploration of the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation in Pennsylvania.

Corbett has no primary opponent, even though his campaign is now aggressively attacking Wolf in a TV ad. Every Pennsylvania governor since 1974 has won a second term, but Corbett’s political support remains stubbornly low.

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