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Thomas Fitzgerald: Corbett's Velcro side

Some leaders are Teflon or can hit back fast after a gaffe. But that's not the governor's style.

Gov. Corbett cares, a Democrat says. "But he's given people tons of ammunition." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Gov. Corbett cares, a Democrat says. "But he's given people tons of ammunition." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read more

When challenged, Gov. Christie sometimes yells like a Marine gunnery sergeant, calling reporters, citizens, and opponents alike stupid. Judging by his stratospheric poll ratings, voters love that shtick. He's "Jersey Strong."

And how often did former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell say something outrageous, such as opining in 2006 that many old people love casinos because they "lead very gray lives"? After a brief flare, the outrage faded, as it always did; it was just Ed being Ed.

Last week, Gov. Corbett mentioned in a radio interview that he had heard some employers say they have trouble finding workers who can pass a drug test - and for that moment of candor, he caught three days of hell, both from Democrats running to replace him in 2014 and from media commentators.

Some politicians are Teflon; others are Velcro.

In the former category: Ronald Reagan (killer trees and "welfare queens") and Vice President Biden (Indian accents at 7-Elevens and "a big [expletive] deal"). Reagan's charm allowed him to recover from many gaffes or factual inaccuracies, and Biden seems to many like a coarse but bighearted uncle.

Corbett clearly belongs in the Velcro column. Bad stuff sticks to him. During the 2010 campaign, for example, he said that "the jobs are there" but that many unemployed people would rather draw government benefit checks. And last year, Corbett said women could "close your eyes" to avoid looking at a fetal ultrasound, proposed as a requirement before having an abortion in a bill that went nowhere.

Those and other remarks have helped to cement a narrative of a callous Corbett, with little understanding of, or sympathy for, the people he is leading.

"That's the thing - he's not a hateful guy. He cares. But he's given people tons of ammunition because of sloppy mistakes," said Daniel F. McElhatton, a Democratic strategist. "At the end of the day, Tom Corbett has never operated in the big leagues under such an intense microscope."

Rendell would hit back fast when he found himself in trouble, getting on the phone or staging a news conference to tamp down a media frenzy. His pugnacious style was forged scrapping in Philadelphia politics, where he was district attorney and then mayor.

In contrast, Corbett has been slow to correct verbal mistakes, or even to recognize them. Last week, he did not react to the uproar over the drug-test remarks until two days after Democrats fanned it by circulating a video of the interview. He said at a forum in Malvern that he was referring only to Marcellus Shale employers who told of trouble finding drug-free applicants to train for skilled trades - and was not attributing the jobless rate to stoned workers, as his words were widely portrayed. (A Daily News headline called it his "Big Bong Theory.")

People who know the governor well say he is earnest, thinks in a linear way, and tends to view questions literally. In the case of the ultrasound bill, for example, Corbett had been asked at a news conference how the state could force someone to look at the image. "Close your eyes" was a logical answer - but from the perspective of people opposed to the proposal, he may have seemed unfeeling and dismissive of their concerns.

It also does not help that Corbett is in charge during tough times, with Pennsylvania's jobless rate above the nation's, and polls showing deep worry about the state economy. Budget cuts have hit social services hard.

Before becoming governor, Corbett was U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh and state attorney general; prosecutorial obligation and lawyerly prudence trained him to be circumspect. And his personality is more reserved than, say, Rendell's or Christie's. He does not talk trash, schmooze effortlessly, or slap backs.

A top Pennsylvania Republican strategist said that it would help if Corbett could "lighten up" at times, that his serious demeanor made remarks such as those about drug testing seem harsh, rather than an offhand recitation of what he has been told.

As he heads into his 2014 reelection campaign, Corbett cannot undertake a personality change. But strategists in both parties know he is effective on television and will get a chance to define himself and his tenure on his own terms.

McElhatton, asked how he would position Corbett and try to move the numbers if he were on the other side, said: "You can make him the likable guy who has had to make tough decisions vs. 'tax-raising crazy people.' "

Thomas Fitzgerald: Corbett Comments - and Context

"The jobs are there. But if we keep extending unemployment, people are going to sit there and - I've literally had construction companies tell me, I can't get people to come back to work until . . . they say, I'll come back to work when unemployment runs out." 

- July 9, 2010, in Elizabethtown, while campaigning for governor. Tom Corbett said later he was merely repeating

what employers had told him and did not mean to generalize about unemployed Pennsylvanians.

"We want to make sure that they don't get 50 percent. Keep that down. But we want to get 100 percent, all across the state. And we have to reach out, not just to Republicans - I don't get elected if we only have Republicans. We need to have Democrats and we need to have independents."

- Oct. 28, 2010, to Delaware County Republicans, regarding then-Gov. Ed Rendell's call for at least 50 percent of Philadelphia Democrats to vote that fall. Corbett made a pressing-down gesture as he said "keep that down." Spokesman Kevin Harley said later that the comments were "about getting 100 percent turnout from Republicans, Democrats, and independents. . . . He was saying that we've got to keep their margin down - not the turnout itself."

"I don't know how you can make anybody watch, because you just have to close your eyes."

- March 13, 2012, at a Capitol briefing, on a bill requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before abortions. Corbett said

that he did not think women could be forced to look at a fetal image, and that he opposed requiring ultrasounds that involve an internal probe. The bill did not pass.

"There are many employers that say, you know, we are looking for people, but we can't find anybody that, that has passed a drug test, a lot of them, and that's a concern for me because we're having a serious problem with that."

- April 29, 2013, taped radio interview with Corbett said Thursday he was referring only to failed drug tests in Marcellus Shale hiring and training programs, an area he had mentioned moments earlier in the interview, and was not generalizing about the unemployed.