The final debate Monday night among the four Democrats seeking the 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 the front-running first-time candidate Tom Wolf.
The debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia was the candidates' last in a long string of well over a dozen, coming eight days before Pennsylvania's May 20 primary election. It also was in front of their biggest TV audience yet — Drexel said 22 radio and TV stations carried it live — and perhaps was a last, best chance to sway the party faithful.
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.
The candidates responsible for much of the attacks on Wolf, state Treasurer Rob McCord and Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, also were asked to justify their attacks by the debate questioners, who included journalists.
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 personal wealth to outspend the other candidates' campaigns, is experienced enough to get Democratic Party 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. At least we're going to have an argument here."
Wolf countered that his record speaks for itself, including his work in the non-profit sector to improve York, where his company, the Wolf Organization, is headquartered, and 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 that 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 was where she pushed aside Schwartz' 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.
The Democrats agree broadly on the issues in the campaign: increasing taxes on Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry, increasing funding for education, raising the minimum wage and supporting abortion rights.
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.