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Tension runs high in Penna.'s AG race

HARRISBURG - Two former prosecutors, both from eastern Pennsylvania, are locked in an unusually bitter primary battle for a chance to make history by becoming the first Democrat elected Pennsylvania attorney general.

HARRISBURG - Two former prosecutors, both from eastern Pennsylvania, are locked in an unusually bitter primary battle for a chance to make history by becoming the first Democrat elected Pennsylvania attorney general.

Both have also assailed a Republican who is not even on the ballot - Gov. Corbett.

In the run-up to Tuesday's Democratic primary, Kathleen Kane and Patrick Murphy have waged a TV air war that went negative days ago as they crisscrossed the state in search of last-minute funding and support.

Kane, who worked for 13 years as an assistant Lackawanna County district attorney, and Murphy, a former Army JAG officer and two-term congressman from Bucks County, want the chance to take on the lone Republican candidate, District Attorney David Freed of Cumberland County, in November for the open seat.

Both tout their careers as tough-on-criminals prosecutors and paint a similar vision for the office of Pennsylvania's chief law enforcement officer: protecting children and seniors from abuse, dealing sternly with polluters, and shielding consumers from fraudulent sales of everything from faulty cars to sick puppies.

And they have leveled stinging public attacks at each other.

Kane, in pushing herself as a career "frontline" prosecutor, has dogged Murphy for not having taken the Pennsylvania bar exam. Murphy has zinged Kane in a TV ad for the antiunion stance of her husband's trucking company, and for having donated $500 to Corbett's 2008 attorney general reelection campaign.

Another skirmish broke out Friday as Murphy accused Kane of using her influence to get property taxes reduced on her $1 million house. Kane hit back with a YouTube video of Murphy at a meeting of Southwestern Pennsylvania Democrats acknowledging that he had not tried a criminal case in the state.

Both are, in essence, running against the last person elected to the $152,000-a-year position: Corbett, who they say used the post as a stepping-stone to the governorship.

The Attorney General's Office employs 700 people and has a budget of $81.4 million to investigate and prosecute everything from child predators and Capitol corruption to tax delinquencies and consumer fraud. Corbett appointed Linda Kelly to finish his term after he became governor last year; she agreed not to seek a full term.

In separate interviews, Kane and Murphy criticized Corbett's record as attorney general, saying he had taken too long to investigate accused child abuser Jerry Sandusky. They called for tougher laws mandating reporting of child sex abuse, and contended politicking was behind Corbett's having added Pennsylvania to the list of states challenging the federal health-care law.

Corbett has said that he was barred by law from revealing the case against Sandusky until the grand jury ended its investigation, and that he sued over the health law because he believed it violated states' rights.

Both candidates also contend Corbett, who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, had been lax in prosecuting environmental crimes.

To underscore their contention that Corbett treated the post as a stepping-stone, both have vowed not seek higher office if elected.

But that is a big if. Whoever wins Tuesday's primary faces an uphill battle. Pennsylvanians seem to like their attorneys general to be Republican.

Voters have not sent a Democrat to the post in the more than three decades it has been an elective office. That change, ratified by a statewide referendum, grew out of concerns that a governor-appointed attorney general had been too soft on corruption.

With 13 years as a "street level" prosecutor, Kane said she was the better suited to run in the fall.

"My record on prosecution can stand up to any Republican record," said Kane.

The only major donor to her campaign is her husband, Chris, owner of the Scranton trucking firm Kane is Able. Her campaign has $2.2 million in cash on hand - $2 million of it from her husband, according to its latest reports.

Murphy, in turn, has tried to use that family largesse as a selling point for himself. "I am running a grassroots campaign to inspire people to care about the office," he said. His campaign has $1.6 million on hand, according to state records.

The candidates come from similar backgrounds: working-class, Irish Catholic families.

Kane, 45, of Clarks Summit, was raised in Scranton, where her father was a convenience-store worker and janitor.

Murphy, 38, of Bristol, is the son of a Philadelphia police officer and a legal secretary. He worked for Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham while attending law school at Widener University.

He joined the Army at 19, and after law school, taught constitutional law at West Point before being sent to Iraq as part of the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Murphy said he took the bar exam in Minnesota rather than Pennsylvania on the advice of Army superiors because Minnesota delivers the results faster and he could ship out more quickly to Iraq.

He was later admitted to the Pennsylvania bar on the basis of having passed the Minnesota test, but he has not prosecuted criminal cases here.

Kane has seized on that resumé gap, saying it is vital that the attorney general have a complete understanding of Pennsylvania criminal laws.

"Our criminal laws, our civil laws, are different from any other state," she said. "You need to know what the laws are. And if you don't, then you're at a disadvantage" as attorney general.

Murphy countered that he had practiced law as a civil litigator with the Fox Rothschild firm in Pennsylvania for eight years and worked his way through law school with a job in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Not only that, Murphy said, but during his service in the JAG Corps, he put terrorists behind bars in Iraq and in the United States.

In 2006, he became the first Iraq war veteran elected to the House of Representatives, where he served two terms representing his Bucks County district. In the 2010 midterm elections, amid a wave of pro-Republican sentiment, he was ousted by Mike Fitzpatrick, the same man he'd turned out of office four years earlier.

Tension in the race boiled over during a videotaped April 5 question-and-answer session with Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson. Arguments over issues such as the ultrasound bill and gun laws became so heated that Jackson stepped in and ordered each candidate to let the other speak.