Alex Trebek leads Pa. gubernatorial candidates in sprawling debate

Moderator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey, Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Moderator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey, Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In the only scheduled debate of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race Monday night, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and former GOP state Sen. Scott Wagner worked to stake out their positions on the issues that will likely define their campaigns over the next month.

However, the topics they discussed — and often the candidates themselves — frequently took a back seat to the moderator: “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.

At the outset of the hourlong debate, Trebek promised a nontraditional format. He kept that promise — leading the candidates in an often-meandering conversation, with several digressions for his own personal reflections.

At one point, he paused a conversation on gerrymandering to talk about the recent, high-profile report on sexual abuse within Pennsylvania’s Catholic churches.

“I believe that there are Catholic priests that can minister to their congregations without preying,” he said, recalling his Catholic school experience. He didn’t ask either candidate specific questions about the church or sexual abuse of children.

When they did talk policy, the candidates stuck largely to their campaign points.

Wagner highlighted the budget impasses that have plagued Wolf’s tenure. Since Wolf opted not to sign three budgets, Wagner argued, he can’t take credit for their contents.

Those budgets automatically became law without Wolf’s signature.

In turn, Wolf noted his administration has pumped cash into education, and he pointed to the money he put in the rainy day fund this year — the first contribution since the Great Recession.

“In June of this past year we passed a budget on time,” Wolf noted at one point.

“It was re-election year,” Wagner shot back, to laughter from the crowd at the state Chamber of Business and Industry in Hershey.

Trebek repeatedly tried to find common ground — but more frequently found intractable differences.

Wagner is adamantly favors the death penalty, for instance. Wolf put a moratorium on it.

Wolf wants to tax oil and gas drillers, while Wagner wants to slash regulations.

Wagner wants to switch state pensions to 401(k)s; Wolf wants to monitor pension funds’ private investments more closely.

And where Wagner would support shrinking the state Legislature, Wolf said he prefers it as is.

There was at least one thing both candidates agreed on, though. At the start of the debate, amid calls for the crowd to be polite and refrain from yelling, Trebek asked Wolf and Wagner if they think politics has become too much of a “blood sport.”

Both answered quickly: yes.

That, however, didn’t dissuade the crowd from booing Trebek himself when he cut off a discussion on natural gas severance taxes at the end of the event.

The most recent public poll on the race, from Franklin & Marshall College, showed Wolf with a comfortable 52-28 percent lead among likely voters, with 18 percent undecided.

The governor leads in cash, too. Since June 5, he has raised $7.2 million. Wagner has raised half that, and Wolf spent nearly four times as much in that period.

All told, Wagner has reported $1.8 million on hand, and Wolf has $8.9 million.

The election is Nov. 6.

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