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Experts: Corbett showing strong, Wolf stayed the course

| Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's strong performance in the first gubernatorial debate may energize his campaign but probably is not enough to turn around his substantial deficit in public opinion polls with six weeks of campaigning remaining, political analysts said Tuesday.

Though Democrat Tom Wolf appeared lackluster to some and offered few details on his tax plan, as leader in the polls he did what he had to do, experts said.

Wolf, a York County businessman running as an outsider, played it safe, avoided specifics and made no mistakes, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Delaware County.

Corbett and Wolf debated Monday night before nearly 1,900 people at the Chamber of Business and Industry's annual dinner in Hershey, a largely pro-Corbett crowd. The debate aired on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. Two more debates are planned in suburban Philadelphia and Wilkinsburg.

Corbett trails Wolf, on average, by a deficit of 17 percentage points in polls since July by six organizations, according to Real Clear Politics.

“I think that Gov. Corbett had the stronger performance ... and that it gives his campaign a shot of energy at a time that it desperately needs one,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Nevertheless, the audience reach of a debate is quite small and thus the impact on voters' choices will be very limited.

“Despite a lackluster performance, Wolf is probably quite content with the outcome.”

Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, called the debate “Corbett's strongest showing.” The governor defined Wolf “as a person who is not prepared for the governorship, as someone still searching for specificity on tax policy and education.”

Each campaign claimed victory after the matchup.

“Tom Wolf clearly laid out a contrasting vision of how to move Pennsylvania forward,” said his spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan. “And Tom Corbett continues to live in a dream world where he pretends that he didn't cut $1 billion from our schools, or that Pennsylvania's job growth isn't among the worst in the nation.

“The truth is that Pennsylvania's schools are struggling and our economy is dismal. Tom Wolf will restore Gov. Corbett's drastic cuts to education and will work to strengthen our economy and rebuild the middle class.”

Corbett's campaign communications director Chris Pack said Wolf “doesn't really know what his vision is for Pennsylvania, aside from wanting to raise income taxes on middle-class families,” something Wolf denied.

Though DiSarro and Borick gave Corbett the advantage, Leckrone figured the decision should go to the leader in the polls.

“Both candidates did what they had to do last night. Given the size of Tom Wolf's lead in the polls, that means that the advantage has to go to him, even though Gov. Corbett performed well,” Leckrone said. “Gov. Corbett was aggressive in defending his record while pressing Wolf for the specifics of his policy plans. He also showed a different side of his personality, which is often formal and stiff. He appeared relaxed, and at times made attempts at humor. This could potentially help his ‘likeability.' ”

Leckrone said Wolf should do more of the same in the next debates.

“If Wolf lays out too many details of potential plans on educational spending, income taxes and pension reform, he opens himself up to attack on specifics,” he said.

But Borick thinks Wolf “could be a little more pointed in his challenges to the Corbett record and positions on issues such as a shale-gas severance tax.” He said Wolf at times during the debate “appeared too deferential to the governor and can afford to be more aggressive” without alienating voters.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb,com.

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