Corbett shows spunk in debate, perhaps too late

 Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, left, and Democrat Tom Wolf shake hands at the end of a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Sept. 22 in Hershey. The tow will meet again Wednesday for the second of three planned debates.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, left, and Democrat Tom Wolf shake hands at the end of a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Sept. 22 in Hershey. The tow will meet again Wednesday for the second of three planned debates.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The stakes were high for Republican Governor Tom Corbett going into his first debate with Tom Wolf, his Democratic challenger.

An averaging of recent polls shows the governor trailing by double digits.

At Corbett’s first opportunity to speak, it looked like he would forfeit the debate before it even got started. He was preoccupied with the clock, and he cut himself off when he saw he had used up his allotted time for opening remarks. But it was a momentary falter in a 45-minute exchange that eventually had the crowd punctuating Corbett’s remarks with applause.

The debate was hosted by the PA Chamber of Business and Industry, which supports the administration’s pro-business policies. They were in his corner before the debate began, but Corbett’s energy made them want to be there a little bit more.

The governor rejected assertions that he cut education spending, casting himself as a victim of rising pension costs and evaporating federal stimulus funds.

“Have I communicated the best? Probably not — but I’ve made the tough decisions,” said Corbett. “I was hired to change the culture of Harrisburg. That’s what it was — to change from a tax and spend, to a save the taxpayers their dollars.”

As Corbett shored up support among his base, Wolf eluded attempts to get specific about his policy proposals — chiefly, a plan to levy a higher income tax that targets the wealthy. The York County businessman said he can’t know how he would set the tax rate until he sees state revenue numbers not available to him now.

“What I am talking about is a tax system that is fair,” Wolf said. “I believe there are people who are paying too much. If we’re going to create a fairer tax system, some people will have to pay more.”

Education spending has loomed large during the gubernatorial campaign, and Wolf has championed greater investment in schools at every turn. But his answers on the topic Monday night were clumsy and vague. Debate moderator Dennis Owens of abc27 asked: if total spending on public education in Pennsylvania comes to $27 billion, and that’s still too low, what should the number be?

“I think the $27 billion number should be — it’s a wonderful number,” Wolf said. “Some of that comes from the federal government, some of it comes from the state, too much of that comes from, I think, local taxes. And I think one of the things we need to do is figure out how to reduce the local property tax burden for public education.”

Corbett tried to highlight the dearth of details coming from Wolf.

“You know, we’re not that far apart. We agree that we have to make it better. But we’re not hearing any answers as to how we would get there,” Corbett said. He pivoted to his own administration: “We’ve already started that process.”

But neither candidate wanted to share new specifics about their policies.

Corbett ran for his first term promising not to raise taxes, and the debate rages on over whether he stayed true to that. The governor ducked twice when Owens tried to pin him down on whether he would stick to the no-tax pledge in a second term.

“I think my record speaks for itself,” Corbett said, before trying to change the subject.

“So is that a yes or a no?” Owens said.

“That’s my answer,” Corbett said. The audience laughed.

Owens tried one more time: “Was taking the tax pledge a mistake?”

“No,” said Corbett. “Because what it did, is it helped me keep everybody focused. Many people in the Legislature agreed with me on that. It helped them keep the focus. Because we had to quit looking at the option, ‘You know, we just need to tax the taxpayers more and spend more of their money.'”

The governor argued with verve. The former attorney general strolled his side of the stage like a courtroom and worked the audience like a jury.

Wolf had less energy, often turning to the moderator to argue his points. Even Wolf’s supporters called the debate a disappointment. But they agreed he’s no worse for wear. Maybe he’ll lose two points, said one onlooker.

In a way, both Toms succeeded.

Corbett sent a message to his pro-business base, and any big donors in their midst, that he still has some fight in him. Wolf resisted attempts to share more details about his plans, in an effort to protect his wide lead.

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