Pennsylvania Dems keep the gloves on in gubernatorial primary

Former Pennsylvania environmental protection secretary John Hanger, left, Lebanon County commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, former Pennsylvania environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and York businessman Tom Wolf, right, participate in a gubernatorial candidates forum Tuesday Feb. 4, 2014 in Philadelphia. 
AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

PHILADELPHIA -- With Republican Tom Corbett among the nation's most vulnerable incumbent governors up for re-election this year, the Pennsylvania Democrats vying to replace him have ample reason not to pull punches in their bids for the nomination.

According to the latest polls, all four Democratic contenders -- self-funded businessman Tom Wolf, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state treasurer Rob McCord, and former Clinton White House environmental official Katie McGinty -- would beat Corbett if the election were held today.

But these challengers have run into a problem in their attempts to distinguish themselves from one another: All share a common ideology, and on almost every key issue, their positions are identical, or nearly so.

With a month to go before the May 20 primary, each of them is traveling the state to tout his or her plan to expand Medicaid, boost the minimum wage and impose a tax on the state's booming natural gas industry.

There is, in other words, no major "fight for the soul" of the party -- a dramatic refrain commonly heard from Republican rivals in far more bitter GOP primaries around the nation.

In fact, the intra-party competitors in this race appear genuinely to like one another.

"I think it's a positive race because we have so many things to be positive about," Wolf told RealClearPolitics. "Everybody on our side in the Democratic race are good people, we've all known each other in different contexts before, and we're all united in the desire to win in November."

Wolf has reason to feel good about the sunny tone the campaign has taken. A first-time candidate, he has impressed Pennsylvania political watchers with his nearly flawless performance thus far, outmaneuvering his better-known rivals to establish himself as an appealing new face in state politics.

Wolf used his significant financial edge to begin airing TV ads long before any of the other Democrats, focusing on biographical spots and issue messages bursting with positivity, including promises to boost funding for public schools, rebuild the state's manufacturing base, and fight for equal pay for women.

Meanwhile, his primary opponents have been playing catch-up.

With primary day rapidly approaching and Wolf enjoying a wide lead in the polls, they recently began to more forcefully challenge the frontrunner, who has outspent his three competitors combined.

But it wasn't until this past Thursday that McCord released the first TV ad of the campaign that could even nominally be described as negative. The 30-second spot criticized Schwartz and McGinty for proposing a smaller extraction tax on natural gas drilling than the one the state treasurer favors.

By political campaign standards, however, the ad was downright tame. It included none of the grainy footage or unflattering photos that are standard-issue props in most negative ads, and the candidate spoke directly to the camera rather than using the traditional hardball tactic of an anonymous narrator making the case against rivals.

In a debate last week, it was Schwartz who came closer than anyone has during the campaign to throwing a real punch: The five-term congresswoman challenged Wolf over a $4.45 million personal bank loan he took out to fund the more than $10 million he's contributed to his campaign.

Schwartz told RCP that it was important for voters to understand how Wolf's "major indebtedness" might affect his potential tenure as governor, but she left it at that and was far more effusive when expounding upon her own credentials as a political veteran than in tearing down her opponents.

"I think it's a good thing for Democrats that all of us have similar positions on the major issues," she said. "I think the race against Tom Corbett will be tougher than some people think and that it takes someone who has been tested and knows how to handle themselves in a race where, in fact, everything's up for grabs. ... The bottom line is: I'm the best bet here."

There is at least some reason to believe Schwartz is right about Corbett's chances of pulling off an upset. With all four Democrats airing TV ads across the state, whoever wins on primary day may be starting from scratch on the fundraising front against the incumbent, who is expected to survive a GOP challenge from conservative activist Bob Guzzardi.

Corbett also has history on his side: Since the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended in 1968 to allow governors to serve two terms, none has lost a re-election bid.

But in this blue-leaning state, there is no doubt that the embattled governor has an uphill climb ahead, and it is just as apparent that Wolf is the man to beat in the race to take him on in November.

One of the biggest problems that his Democratic rivals face is geographic. All three hail from the southeastern portion of the state, surrounding Philadelphia. It's an area that encompasses about 40 percent of Pennsylvania's Democratic primary voters -- a potent stronghold for any single candidate who can harness it, but neither Schwartz, McCord, nor McGinty has done so.

Wolf, on the other hand, has been unimpeded in making the western part of the state his political base.

Still, despite his substantial and consistent lead in the polls, the race remains at least somewhat in doubt, as the other contenders seek to mitigate Wolf's financial advantage down the homestretch.

Analysts expect only about a quarter of the state's approximately 4 million registered Democrats to vote next month, and low turnout could be a concern for the political newcomer.

"He may have the best ads, but I'm not sure he has the best organization," said Pennsylvania political analyst Jon Delano. "I think Tom Wolf's the man to beat, but I don't think it's a done deal for him."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.