With three weeks until the primary election, a live TV debate Wednesday night between the three Republicans seeking the party's nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in November got tough quickly, as they clashed over their increasingly sharp-elbowed attack ads on TV.
Early in the hour-long debate, Paul Mango, a retired health care systems consultant, rebuffed state Sen. Scott Wagner's offer to stop mentioning each other in TV attack ads, as well as a panelist's challenge to refrain from personal attacks on fellow candidates and keep the campaign "out of the gutter.''
"I'm not attacking anyone's character,'' Mango responded to the panelist. "What I'm doing is revealing my opponent's character, and those are two very different things.''
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To Wagner, he said, "I'll run my campaign, senator, you can run your campaign.''
Wagner, who also is president of York County-based waste hauler Penn Waste Inc. and is endorsed by the state Republican Party, countered that he is focusing on issues, although he has aired attack ads, too.
Still, Wagner worked to rebuff Mango's charge that he is no different from Wolf, pointing out that he was opposed to Wolf's 2015 proposal for a multibillion-dollar tax increase to balance the budget and fix school-funding disparities. Wolf's proposal went nowhere amid staunch opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The third candidate, commercial litigation attorney Laura Ellsworth, who has not aired any TV ads at all, swiftly attacked both Wagner and Mango. Their behavior in the primary, Ellsworth said, could mortally wound both of them in the effort beat Wolf in November.
"When these two are done doing what they inevitably are going to do in this race, they will have armed Gov. Wolf with a war chest on either of them that he does not deserve to have, but he will have it and you can't correct that now,'' she said.
The primary election is May 15, and Wolf is not facing a primary challenge in his quest for a second four-year term in office. Mango and Ellsworth, both from suburban Pittsburgh, are first-time candidates.
The debate covered little new ground on issues.
Ellsworth held herself out as the most experienced candidate in the race, after years of playing a prominent role in steering Pittsburgh's civic and business institutions, including chairing the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.
Mango presented himself as the race's social conservative, and accused Wagner of being in line with Wolf on abortion rights. However, Wagner voted last year for legislation to limit abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy that Wolf ultimately vetoed. The legislation also would have effectively banned a procedure that is the most common method of second-trimester abortion.
Meanwhile, Mango attacked Wagner over what Mango calls a "bathroom bill,'' a piece of legislation that Wagner supports that would bar discrimination in employment and housing because of someone's sexual orientation or gender identity. Mango echoes social conservatives in warning that it will compromise religious freedoms and personal privacy in public bathrooms and school locker rooms, a claim that the bill's backers say is baseless and without any track record in other states.
On issues, Ellsworth has separated herself from both Mango and Wagner. She opposes the elimination of school property taxes _ it would destabilize school funding and remove local control, she says _ and supports limits on political campaign donations, and she emphasized those points again Wednesday night.
Moderators and panelists were from WHTM-TV and LNP.