BACKSTAGE before an education forum at the Free Library last week, Tom Wolf told me he was "still enjoying" his first run for public office.

Because I've witnessed many such runs and own what I consider a healthy cynicism (others think it's not so healthy), I simply responded: "You'll learn."

Minutes later, Wolf got a sense of what I meant.

That's when Rob McCord used his opening statement to head-butt Wolf, accusing the wealthy York County businessman of tolerating racism.

McCord linked the hit to billionaire NBA team owner Donald Sterling, just banned for life for racist remarks - implying that Wolf's just another rich, white bigot.

"We need to have a governor who knows racism when he sees it," McCord said later, "somebody who doesn't tolerate it."

Allyson Schwartz played the same card during the forum, although with less venom.

By 3:40 p.m. the next day, we learned why.

New numbers released from an Allentown Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll showed McCord trailing Wolf by 27 points, Schwartz trailing by 25.

So Wolf was served a sample of an old-school political principle: fillet the leader.

And the rest of us got a full-face look at desperation politics.

Now we get TV attack ads - including McCord's continued race-baiting - questioning Wolf's character, business, finances and fitness to serve.

We'll see if these diminish Wolf's substantial lead in the Democratic primary for governor two weeks from tomorrow.

They already diminish the process.

Sure, McCord suggests he's merely forcing a needed discussion of racism, a moral imperative.

And Schwartz contends that she's providing her party a service: bludgeon the front-runner now, so he's battle-ready later.

But behind any pretense of spirited debate in the public interest lies the same clawing, ego-driven, self-serving politics that has made Wolf an alluring alternative to business as usual.

McCord and Schwartz, unable to attract support based on their credentials, appeal or ideas, now use their resources to tear down someone else.

It's predictable, pedestrian politics. It makes yet another candidate, Katie McGinty, look better every day.

The race stuff stems from the arrest 13 years ago of then-York Mayor Charlie Robertson in connection with the killing of a young, black woman during race riots 45 years ago.

Robertson, who is white and was a police officer at the time of the killing, was acquitted. Two others were convicted.

When arrested in 2001, Robertson was a two-term mayor seeking a third term. And Wolf was his campaign chairman because, says Wolf, he and other civic leaders worked with the mayor on revitalization efforts.

Robertson quit his re-election bid shortly after his arrest.

Schwartz hits Wolf for taking out a $4.5 million loan to help finance his run and says his profit-sharing cabinet-supply company, founded by his family in the 1800s, was milked by Wolf, went into debt and laid off workers.

The Wolf campaign responds with ads of its own.

One features York's first African-American mayor, Kim Bracey, expressing outrage over race charges: "We know Tom Wolf's heart. He's a person of integrity."

There's also response on the business.

Wolf employees note the company was in trouble three years after Wolf sold it in 2006 to work as then-Gov. Ed Rendell's secretary of revenue. They say Wolf bought it back in 2009, turned it around and saved jobs.

The politics of personal destruction aren't new. That's why many good and capable people avoid seeking office. It's why so many voters don't bother voting. And it's part of the reason we have lackluster leadership in countless elective positions.

Pennsylvania politics already have too little to be proud of. Today they have even less.