HARRISBURG - It came down to these two words Monday night: experience and independence.
Those were the two words uttered most often in the only scheduled debate between Republican David Freed and Democrat Kathleen Kane, who are vying to become Pennsylvania's next attorney general.
During the hour-long televised exchange, Kane repeatedly claimed she was the more independent of the two, and tried to paint Freed as the candidate chosen and groomed by Gov. Corbett; while Freed shot back that he has something Kane lacks - experience, as the Cumberland County district attorney, running a law enforcement office.
The debate turned tense in parts, as the candidates were peppered with questions about the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse investigation; the manner in which they have run their campaigns; and any family ties that could pose a conflict of interest in their new position.
The exchange could prove critical: Although several polls have found Kane ahead of Freed, they have also shown a significant number of voters are undecided on who deserves the high-profile job. Aside from defending the state against lawsuits, the office also prosecutes everything from public corruption to consumer fraud to liquor law violations.
On the Sandusky question, both candidates said they would review - Kane used the term investigate - how the Attorney General's Office, then run by Corbett, had handled the long-running probe. Kane, a former prosecutor in the Lackawanna County District Attorney's Office who tried child sex-abuse cases, questioned why it took three years to charge Sandusky, and why prosecutors decided to launch a grand jury probe instead of yanking Sandusky off the streets as quickly as possible.
"As a child-abuse prosecutor, I have never used a grand jury, and I will tell you why - it takes too long," Kane said at the debate, held at the Widener School of Law just outside Harrisburg. "It is your duty as a prosecutor to get the pedophile off the street."
Freed cautioned that no one could make a judgment on Corbett's handling of the case before reviewing all the evidence, but said he too would look to see if anything could have been done differently, or better.
"I understand as a chief law enforcement officer that when serious cases happen, people are going to have questions, and people are going to be angry," Freed said. "I've seen that no matter whether you convict people and lock them up."
Kane pounced on Freed for not swiftly and strongly denouncing a television ad that aired in the Philadelphia region attacking her record on rape cases. She said Freed's campaign had remained largely silent on the ad, even after a nonpartisan fact-checking group dubbed it "one of the most blatantly false attack ads of the political season." The ad was paid for by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based nonprofit group that backs GOP candidates in state races.
"I understand that he has no control over who runs ads, but I do expect a candidate for attorney general to stand up for the truth," said Kane.
To which Freed replied: "I am disappointed in that ad. It is not an ad that I would have run."
The candidates were also questioned about conflicts they may have in holding the office. There is an ongoing investigation, for instance, by the office into actions taken by the board of the Hershey Trust Co., which for years was chaired by Freed's father-in-law until he stepped down last year.
Freed said that if elected, he would turn the Hershey investigation over to an independent special prosecutor if the probe is still ongoing.
Kane again used that opportunity to portray Freed as lacking independence from fellow Republican Corbett - to which Freed later retorted: "I must have missed the phone call when Gov. Corbett called and hand-picked me to run for attorney general. That is a decision I made on my own . . . I am happy to have his support, but I am doing this on my own."
A third candidate, York attorney Marakay Rogers, who is running as a Libertarian, could not attend Monday night's debate.