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Chasing Tom Wolf

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Saturday, April 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Tom Wolf's fellow Democrats are finding that he is a hard man to attack. There have been a few attempts to slow his progress and narrow his lead, but nothing more than a glancing blow, each leaving him a little stronger than before.

As the front-runner among four Democrats seeking their party's nomination for governor, Wolf came out of the gate early, running memorable ads that showed him as everyman, not a politician or celebrity, just a guy with a story to tell.

Through those ads, the public met Wolf's family, the kind of folks everybody would love to claim as their own. Those ads also showed that Wolf drives his own road-worn Jeep, served in the Peace Corps and owns a kitchen cabinet company that shares its profits with its workers.

And when Wolf speaks, he talks about a common vision, how we all will get ahead only if we work together. It must all be ringing true because he has held his early lead in the polls while also alarming his opponents, who are wondering if they can find an opening or if they started too late.

Conventional political wisdom calls for trailing candidates to travel two parallel paths at times like this. They must continue to build themselves up, while taking their opponent down by going negative. But that second path is proving difficult for Wolf's opponents.

Critics have tried to go after his profit-sharing plan, pointing out that some of his employees get “only” $5,000 or $6,000 as their share. The employees were quick to debunk those attacks, proclaiming how much those extra checks meant to their families.

When opponent Allyson Schwartz discovered that Wolf took out a loan for part of the money he gave his own campaign, she demanded more details; Wolf promptly disclosed the principal and interest rate. And the Schwartz attack backfired when Wolf showed that he had taken steps to ensure that the debt remained personal and could never be repaid with campaign dollars.

Tougher yet, Wolf has not gone negative on any of his fellow Democrats. When faced with a popular opponent who does not embrace the slash-and-burn approach to politics, those who do go to the dark side run the risk of looking small.

Still, the big show will come in the fall, when the Democrat nominee will face incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who just last week took his own swing at Wolf, a sure sign that a Wolf candidacy already concerns Republicans. Demanding that Wolf release more tax returns, Corbett might have fired the first shot in the fall matchup.

As for Tom Wolf, he could be reading the playbook of the late Billy Coyne, the quiet and powerful 11-term congressman of Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. Coyne always ran on what he did and never ran a negative ad.

It seems out of fashion now but there was a time when candidates for public office simply put their experience and qualifications in front of the people and let them decide.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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