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Four things to watch for in tonight’s Pa. governor debate

Gov. Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner face off in the lone debate of the campaign tonight. It will be moderated by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner will share the stage tonight in the first and only debate of the Pennsylvania governor's race. The debate is to be moderated by game show host Alex Trebek.
Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner will share the stage tonight in the first and only debate of the Pennsylvania governor's race. The debate is to be moderated by game show host Alex Trebek.Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

The race for governor of Pennsylvania takes a bit of a twist tonight when Republican Scott Wagner and Democratic Gov. Wolf face off in the lone debate of the campaign.

Moderating the 45-minute debate, to be held at the Hershey Lodge, will be Alex Trebek, the host of the game show Jeopardy! Hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the debate is set to begin at 8:15 p.m. and will be broadcast live by Pennsylvania Cable Network.

Wolf, a Democrat seeking a second four-year term, is leading in the polls by double digits and has outspent Wagner by $10 million during the general election campaign.

A wealthy businessman whose family owned a kitchen cabinet supply company, Wolf is campaigning as a "different" kind of politician who doesn't accept gifts from lobbyists. He's also running on a record of investing in public education, after his Republican predecessor made steep cuts.

>>READ MORE: The case for a 'people's debate' between Wolf and Wagner >>

Wagner, a former state senator who owns a waste-management company, is pledging to cut taxes and "take out the trash" in Harrisburg.

With a short amount of time on stage together, it's unlikely the candidates will be able to go in depth on issues like the opioid epidemic, the tax and regulatory climate, the grand jury report on clergy abuse, health care costs, or the state's underfunded retirement system for public workers.

With that in mind, here are four things to look for in tonight's debate.

1. Wagner’s demeanor

Wagner styles himself in the mold of President Trump, unrestrained by the standards of traditional political discourse. Sometimes that gets the better of him, as when he tangled with a Democratic activist last year who was filming him at a campaign event.

So the question tonight is, which Wagner shows up? "He has to appear decisive and forceful without appearing obnoxious or temperamental," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican strategist who isn't affiliated with either campaign.

Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic media consultant, noted that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh's fiery performance during last week's confirmation hearing appeared to energize conservatives, albeit under very different circumstances. "I think the people around Wagner have done what they can to keep his emotions in check," Ceisler said. But, he asked, "Does he take a lesson from what Kavanaugh did?"

Ceisler, referring to Kavanaugh's awkward exchange with some Democratic senators, added, "Let's hope he doesn't ask Alex Trebek a question."

2. Will the crowd stay awake?

Some political analysts have described the governor's race as a sleepy affair. To the extent voters are paying attention to politics, they're probably consumed with Trump, the Kavanaugh hearings, and in Pennsylvania, perhaps the grand jury report.

So Wagner may look to jolt the race. "I think Gov. Wolf has to keep people asleep," Ceisler said. "I think Wagner has to do something to wake them up."

Given that Wolf has declined to participate in more debates, "the onus is clearly on" Wagner tonight, Gerow said. "Wolf just wants to get through it and continue with his rose garden strategy. Wagner needs to score some points tonight," he said.

3. Taxes

No single issue has defined the race thus far. Wolf has touted his expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, education spending, and veto of legislation that would have restricted abortion rights, among other issues.

Wagner has tried to make inroads on education funding, arguing that Wolf would redistribute more state spending to districts like Philadelphia at the expense of everyone else. Wolf has denied that assertion, and it does not seem to have created momentum for Wagner, Gerow said.

But particularly in front of the business crowd, Wagner may try to draw a contrast on taxes. Earlier in his first term, Wolf sought to raise the income tax and other levies — moves that were blocked by the GOP-led legislature.

Wolf says he has no plans to raise taxes if he's reelected, though he has continued to call for a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

"I would tell [Wagner] to go straight at the tax issue," Gerow said. The challenge: it's easier to make a case against a public official who actually raised taxes than someone who wanted, but failed, to do so.

Nevertheless, it's worth watching how Wolf handles the line of attack.

4. Jeopardy! jokes

Unlikely Pennsylvania debate moderators for $500, Alex.

Yikes. Hopefully the candidates do better. Wagner made the first reference Monday to the game show in a fundraising email, telling supporters: “In honor of Jeopardy’s famed ‘DAILY DOUBLE’ one of our generous donors stepped up to DOUBLE match every donation made on this email today, ahead of the debate.”

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