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Wolf leaves the pack behind

York County businessman cruises to easy primary election win for governor.

Republican Gov. Corbett (right) and Democratic opponent Tom Wolf.
Republican Gov. Corbett (right) and Democratic opponent Tom Wolf.Read more

MONEY ISN'T everything in Pennsylvania politics. But it can sure help an unknown candidate leap out to a lead in a primary election populated with other unknowns.

York County businessman Tom Wolf won the Democratic nomination for governor yesterday - defeating U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty - in large part due to a $10 million bet he made on early campaign commercials.

Wolf, comfortably leading with 58 percent of the vote last night, can now turn his full attention to challenging Gov. Corbett's bid for a second term in the Nov. 4 general election.

Corbett and the Pennsylvania Republican Party turned their attention to Wolf weeks ago, zeroing in on the Democratic front-runner before the primary arrived.

Speaking at the restaurant Relish in the West Oak Lane section of Northwest Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, Wolf presented "two different visions" for the state.

Wolf accused Corbett of making massive cuts to public education that "hollowed out schools" and presented himself as a job creator who will responsibly take advantage of resources like the natural gas being drilled for in the Marcellus Shale region.

Wolf wants an extraction tax on drillers to pay for education. Corbett opposes such a tax.

Corbett's campaign issued a statement last night quoting Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who said they had "detailed notes of Tom Wolf's tax-and-spend policies, and we will waste no time pulling back the curtain and introducing Pennsylvanians, for the first time, to the real Tom Wolf."

Corbett last week was already running TV ads critical of the 18 months Wolf spent as revenue secretary for Gov. Ed Rendell.

The state Republican Party started mailing a series of campaign fliers to Democratic voters last week. One mailing attacked Wolf for the kitchen cabinet supply company his family runs, suggesting - with no proof presented - that it uses a Delaware corporate charter to dodge taxes.

Wolf denies that claim.

Schwartz also targeted Wolf about his business practices during the primary, while McCord went harder after the front-runner by questioning his role in the 2001 campaign of the mayor of York, who dropped out of the race after being accused - and later acquitted - of murder during a 1969 race riot in that city.

That move by McCord drew a rebuke from Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

Pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College said Wolf did not run his campaign like a "rookie" despite a lack of experience in statewide politics.

"Here's a guy who went through a grueling campaign with first-rate opponents, not a bunch of ne'er-do-wells, and came out of it without a gaffe, without a mistake," he said.

Wolf's victory was built on his $10 million investment - including a $4.5 million loan - which allowed him to run campaign commercials during the cold winter months when voters were stuck inside watching television.

Wolf's opponents stayed off the air during that time, allowing him to build a sizable lead they could never overcome.

Wolf now must avoid the lessons learned by Tom Smith, a former coal company owner who spent $5 million to win a crowded Republican primary election for the U.S. Senate and ultimately about $16.5 million, only to be trounced by Casey in the 2012 general election.

Madonna said self-funding candidates are not assured victory, adding that Wolf has proven himself a credible candidate.

"Money used wisely with a credible candidate is different from money used unwisely with a candidate who is not credible," Madonna advised.

Wolf will share a ticket with state Sen. Mike Stack III, the victor in a five-way Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

Stack, who has represented the 5th Senate District in Northeast Philly for 13 years, said his ties to the city will benefit Wolf. He noted previous concerns that the other Democratic candidates for governor live close to Philadelphia, which would have made the ticket overloaded in this part of the state.

"There was a problem, maybe there was too much Philadelphia," Stack said yesterday. "Now it seems like just the right amount of Philadelphia."

For the general election, Madonna predicts Corbett and the Republican Party will try to paint Wolf as a "tax-and-spend liberal" whose policies will harm the state's economy if implemented.

Wolf, Madonna said, will continue to hammer Corbett on education funding, casting that as an example of "failed leadership."

Several national media outlets have consistently rated Corbett the incumbent governor most likely to be defeated this year.

Corbett is expected to be well-funded after winning the Republican primary with no opposition.

The state Republican Party engineered a legal challenge that bumped Bob Guzzardi, an ultra-conservative Ardmore businessman and frequent Corbett critic, from yesterday's ballot.

Guzzardi, who ran a gadfly campaign heavy with vitriol and short of resources, attempted a write-in campaign yesterday.