KNOW HOW POLITICS can often be predictable?

Well, that's what happened at the Two-Toms debate Monday night in Hershey.

Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf followed their respective scripts.

The Republican incumbent - trailing in polls and campaign cash and still regarded the No. 1 vulnerable guv in America - took some sweeping swings at his challenger.

When you're behind, that's what you do.

In response, the Democratic upstart pulled a Wolf-a-dope, leaning on rhetorical ropes, staying calm, happy just to lay a few jabs on the titleholder's chin.

When you're ahead on points, you don't need a knockout.

Corbett was better than he has been and better than expected. But then expectations at this point are, let's be honest, pretty low.

Wolf came off a little wimpy. Annoyingly talked too much about his family cabinetry business (he built it twice and it's so nice). And about his smarts: "I'm a graduate of MIT."

But he managed to maintain his trademark coolness without being bloodied.

Both ducked key questions.

Corbett declined to answer whether his famed no-new-taxes pledge extends to a potential second term.

All he said was his record "speaks for itself."

For many voters that's the problem.

Wolf repeatedly dodged specifics about his spending plans and taxes.

"I don't know" how much is enough to better fund public education. "I don't have the figures" to provide details on making taxes fairer.

But, again, he's a candidate with a big lead. Despite a constant theme that he's an unconventional politician, this is pretty conventional politics.

Corbett pressed him on it.

He asked, "Where do you get the money" for more school funding? And "show us your plans" on taxes. Corbett added, "With me, people know we're going to keep spending as low as we can."

This was warmly received by a friendly state Chamber of Business and Industry audience of 1,900. The chamber has endorsed Corbett, as it did four years ago.

Wolf, for his part, stressed that he comes from the private sector, noting, "I'm a fan of the private sector," and sticking with stuff like "we can do better."

But Wolf likely scored with a broader TV audience (assuming there was one) on education cuts, which he said resulted in thousands of layoffs, larger class sizes and higher property taxes.

Corbett blames school woes on lost federal stimulus money and ever-increasing public pension costs.

They also clashed over Marcellus Shale.

Wolf wants a 5 percent natural-gas-extraction tax, which he says can bring the state $1 billion in new revenue (thanks to an increasing number of wells and higher prices) without hurting the industry or driving it away.

Corbett opposes the tax: "We're trying to grow a new industry . . . so they employ the people of Pennsylvania."

Wolf whiffed on an opportunity here.

He might have mentioned Corbett's fellow Republican, Senate GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi, one of the few adults in the Legislature, who recently told a Delco business group that Corbett's opposition to the tax is "a mistake that the governor now realizes."

After the event both camps touted their guy. Again, predictable stuff.

But I encountered two unsolicited spins.

One came from Lebanon County GOP Sen. Mike Folmer. Walking out, he leaned over and said, "Greenpeace should have been here tonight. Lot of hot air for global warming."

At least a little Corbett dis, no?

Then longtime Democratic Rep. Pete Daley, of Washington County, told me he thought Democrat Wolf "did horribly" and the governor was "exceptional."

So I guess it's not all predictable.

The Toms get two more cracks at this. The next debate is Oct. 1, at KYW Newsradio. The last debate's Oct. 8, at WTAE-TV, Pittsburgh.

Feel free to predict what happens then.

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