PENNSYLVANIA Democrats face an interesting choice in the April 24 primary election for an office no Pennsylvania Democrat ever won.

And that office, state Attorney General, tends to spawn candidates for governor.

Of the four Republicans who've won it since it became elective in 1980, three - Ernie Preate, Mike Fisher, Tom Corbett - later ran for governor.

So the outcome of next week's race between former Bucks County U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and former Lackawanna prosecutor Kathleen Kane could not only give Democrats a shot at history but also set the stage for a future contender.

The winner faces Republican Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed in November.

Ironically, Freed's father-in-law, Roy Zimmerman, was the state's first elected A.G. and the only elected A.G. not to run for governor.

(To refresh your memory, Preate went to prison, Fisher's a federal judge and Corbett . . . well, you know.)

Kane vs. Murphy is a strongly contested outsider/insider gig: Kane's a newcomer; Murphy's connected.

When I ask each why he/she is running, Murphy says, "to keep our families safe and protect a woman's right to choose"; Kane says, "to get politics out of the Office of Attorney General."

Murphy was the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress. He led repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Kane's endorsed by former President Bill Clinton. She was an unpaid volunteer in Hillary Clinton's '08 campaign.

Doesn't seem to be much love lost.

Murphy's endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (his father was a veteran Philly cop), the AFL-CIO, the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, Ed Rendell, Mayor Nutter, Seth Williams and others.

So Kane tells me that Murphy "has the old-boy network" and is "bought and paid for" by special interests.

Thing is, in low-turnout elections, which this certainly will be, networks and special interests mean a real advantage.

But if Murphy's ties help him (and they do), Kane's wealth (she married into a Scranton family that owns a large trucking firm called Kane is Able) clearly helps her.

She's spending $2 million-plus in family money.

So Murphy stresses, "I'm not trying to buy this race."

There are other hot buttons.

Kane's mantra is she's "a prosecutor, not a politician," a slam at Murphy for never trying a case in his home state and for his political background.

She hammers the point in a TV ad referencing "corruption" in Harrisburg. In the ad she says, "You want somebody tough enough to tell the Harrisburg boys enough is enough? You need to send them a prosecutor, not a politician."

It's pretty effective.

Murphy struck back over the weekend with a TV spot claiming that Kane is Able is anti-union and noting that Kane contributed to Corbett (she gave $500 to his A.G. re-elect campaign in 2008).

Kane's camp also notes that Murphy never took Pennsylvania's bar exam, instead taking Minnesota's, which has a very high pass rate compared with those of other states.

Murphy, however, prosecuted cases, including terrorism cases, in Iraq as a Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) lawyer in the 82nd Airborne Division, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.

He also taught constitutional and military law at West Point and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York.

He says he took Minnesota's bar, on advice of senior officers, to get quicker results to meet a JAG school-starting schedule. He's been a member of the Pennsylvania bar for eight years.

The candidates spar over legal handling of proposed legislation requiring women seeking abortions to undergo invasive ultrasounds.

Both call the bill unconstitutional. Murphy said he wouldn't enforce or defend it, and Kane initially said the A.G. has no choice but to do so.

But the 1980 act creating the A.G.'s office says the A.G. can authorize counsel for the governor or an independent agency to act on his or her behalf.

Says Murphy, "She clearly doesn't know the law."

Kane was a county prosecutor from 1995 to 2007, specializing first in child-abuse and sexual-assault cases but expanding to cover all criminal areas.

She says she "prosecuted" more than 3,000 cases. When I ask, she tells me that most did not go to trial. But when she spoke at a rally with Clinton last week in Willow Grove, she said she's "given thousands of closing arguments," which sure sounds like a reference to trials.

Most candidates tend to overstate their own cases and nitpick their opponents.

Both these candidates come with credentials and selling points.

Question for Democrats is: Who's got a better shot in the fall - a politically practiced war vet/former congressman, or a female prosecutor in a state that's woefully lacking women in office?

For recent columns, go to
philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.