LANCASTER - At times, Thursday night's Democratic debate for governor was more like a cable-TV free-for-all than a measured discussion of the issues, as the No. 2 candidate in the polls, U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, mounted a vigorous attack on the leader, York businessman Tom Wolf.
After more than a dozen debates and forums, the four candidates met for a 90-minute live telecast at Franklin and Marshall College, with Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord criticizing Wolf before all four came together in opposition to the policies of Gov. Corbett.
A new poll showing Wolf with a 25-point lead over his closest challenger might have laid the groundwork for reviving issues raised in Wednesday's debate in Philadelphia over his relationships with officials accused of breaking the law.
"I'm way ahead - I have a bull's-eye on my back," Wolf said.
Schwartz turned a question on corruption in Harrisburg on Wolf, asking why he helped form a legal-defense fund for former State Rep. Steve Stetler, who was convicted as part of the Bonusgate investigation and was recently released from prison.
"As governor, you have to say: 'I will not stand up for corruption,' " Schwartz said.
Wolf held firm on his defense of Stetler, a fellow York County Democrat, calling him a lifelong friend: "He is still a good human being, and I did what I thought was right."
McCord returned to Wolf's relationship with former York Mayor Charlie Robertson, who was a police officer in 1969 when an African American woman was gunned down during a race riot. Robertson was charged with murder in 2001 along with others and was found not guilty in 2002. Wolf was Robertson's campaign manager when charges were filed; Robertson dropped out of the race after being arrested.
Wolf did not directly respond to McCord, but on Wednesday night he called the attacks "desperate."
In the debate's second half, the candidates turned their sights on Corbett and found common ground, pledging to reverse controversial policies, saying they support Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and blaming the governor for lower-than-projected revenues and the looming budget deficit.
Former Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty said the state was wasting millions defending the flawed voter-ID law and pledged to legalize gay marriage if elected. All said they would impose a moratorium on the death penalty. Schwartz is the only one who has said she would eliminate it.
The candidates agreed that school districts need better funding and have suffered under Corbett. They pointed to schools suffering from fewer teachers and larger class sizes while property taxes continue to rise statewide.
"A billion dollars left the education of our children," Wolf said. "Twenty thousand teachers lost positions. Everyone's struggling because of these cuts."
A poll Thursday, the first in a month, showed Wolf holding the wide lead he established early with a slew of TV ads. He has contributed $10 million to his campaign, nearly half in a personal loan.
Among Democratic voters, 38 percent supported Wolf, while Schwartz received 13 percent, McCord 11 percent, and McGinty 2 percent, according to the Muhlenberg College/Allentown Morning Call poll, which has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
McGinty brought the question of ethics in Harrisburg to her discussion of the pension crisis, saying Republican lawmakers had used public servants as scapegoats while politicians seeking to line their pockets with large pension increases in 2001 created the current crisis.
McCord closed by reminding viewers of his experience running the Treasury and his earlier role as a venture capitalist creating Pennsylvania jobs.
Schwartz, who gave the last closing statement, used her minute to raise a new issue with Wolf, whose ads have championed his turnaround of his family's failing cabinet company. She said his business success story had failed to mention layoffs that occurred during the firm's restructuring.