One of the Battling Toms seemed more ready for battle in Wednesday morning's gubernatorial debate in Philadelphia, enough that the outcome was considerably tighter than in debate No. 1. Democratic challenger Tom Wolf was feistier this time out, but under the lights of a Philadelphia television studio, Gov. Tom Corbett still scratched out a narrow victory in their second debate.
- Apparently that was actual coffee in the KYW Newsradio mug sitting in front of Mr. Wolf, who seemed much more animated in this debate. Perhaps Mr. Corbett's performance suffered a bit because he was seated – instead of being able to prowl the stage the way he might have worked a courtroom as a prosecutor – but Mr. Wolf definitely took steps to make sure he was more assertive. He landed a few great shots too, like this one about the Corbett administration borrowing money from the treasury last month: "If I had a cash-flow balance like the state does, there's no bank that would give me a line of credit."
- Responses to questions about two separate issues prompted testy exchanges, one on the air and one after the broadcast. In the middle of talking about recent state budgets, Mr. Wolf said the Corbett administration had cooked the books so it could claim having a balanced, timely budget. Mr. Corbett responded instantly:" You're accusing me on a criminal act?" "I'm accusing you of overestimating revenue," Mr. Wolf answered. And when asked about the pornographic emails alleged to have been passed around by current or former Corbett administration officials, Mr. Wolf said he was concerned about a permissive culture that "starts at the top." Mr. Corbett fired back after the debate, accusing Mr. Wolf of leveling a cheap shot.
- Mr. Corbett seems to still struggle with the notion that he's not running against his predecessor, and it came back to bite him at least twice during the forum. On two different occasions, Mr. Corbett challenged Mr. Wolf on a fiscal policy or decision made by Mr. Rendell; twice, Mr. Wolf was able to respond by saying he wasn't revenue secretary at the time. In one instance, Mr. Corbett persisted, pointing out that his opponent was a friend and colleague. No matter what Mr. Corbett says, Mr. Rendell was a popular guy; in 2002, he beat Attorney General Mike Fisher 53 percent to 44 percent and in 2006, he thumped former Steeler Lynn Swann 60-40. If Mr. Rendell had been legally able to run for a third consecutive term, would Mr. Corbett be governor today?
- Mr. Wolf's weak spot continues to be his unwillingness to give us specific examples of what he would do if elected; in fact, he answered one question about the lack of specifics on his proposal to raise income taxes by initially refusing to answer the question ("I'll be specific when I understand what kind of hole this governor has left."). We know that he would levy a 5 percent extraction tax on the gas industry, but the fact is that we know very little else, beyond some broad plans, about what Mr. Wolf has in mind.
- The bottom line? With a few more details and a couple of solid counterpunches, Mr. Corbett beat Mr. Wolf for the second-straight debate, albeit in a squeaker this time. But with polls continuing to show the Democratic challenger with a double-digit lead, the onus is on Mr. Corbett to do better – much better – than a narrow victory when the candidates meet in Pittsburgh Oct. 8.