For nearly half a century, as long as the Pennsylvania Constitution has allowed governors to serve two terms, this temperamentally traditional commonwealth has voted for every chief executive who sought reelection. Polls suggest that could change next week.
But why? The Republican governor, Tom Corbett, maintains that his popularity has suffered from four years of hard decisions. His Democratic opponent, businessman Tom Wolf, argues that Corbett is reaping the consequences of a failed tenure.
Which is closer to the truth? In the absence of an endorsement, the Editorial Board hopes a look at important differences between the candidates will help readers answer that question.
Natural-gas taxation: Corbett has resisted calls to tax Pennsylvania's booming natural-gas industry on the grounds that doing so would threaten an economic windfall. He eventually consented to an "impact fee" that generated about $225 million last year, mostly for local governments to address the wear and tear of drilling.
Wolf says the Commonwealth could gain much more from the bonanza without driving away industry. He supports a 5 percent extraction tax that he expects to yield $1 billion a year. The Democrat says that could replace the impact fee and substantially increase spending on basic education.
The Inquirer, like Wolf, has strongly supported a tax on natural gas, a resource that to some extent belongs to Pennsylvania - the only major gas state without a levy on the value of fuel extracted. The revenue already forgone represents a significant lost opportunity.
Income taxation: Wolf has proposed making the state's flat income tax more progressive by exempting an unspecified level of earnings; raising rates for individual taxpayers making more than $70,000 to $90,000 a year; and lowering rates for the rest. He says total revenue would remain constant.
Corbett has not supported changes to the income tax and has sharply criticized Wolf's refusal to specify the details of his proposal.
The Inquirer agrees with Wolf that a progressive tax would be more just and practical. But his proposal is too vague and faces high legal and legislative hurdles.
State budgets: The governor has taken particular pride in achieving timely balanced budgets despite significant fiscal challenges.
Wolf charges that Corbett has used "smoke and mirrors" in the form of short-term maneuvers that mask structural shortfalls.
While Corbett deserves credit for departing from the Rendell era's tardy budgets, The Inquirer believes an antitax pledge needlessly constrained his ability to manage state finances. And we agree with Wolf that this year's budget marked a nadir, not only blowing the deadline but depending on one-time revenue to achieve the appearance of balance.
Education: Assailed for deep cuts to education funding, Corbett has blamed his predecessor, Ed Rendell, who relied heavily on temporary federal stimulus funds. Corbett notes that he has increased state aid to schools.
Wolf says he would use revenue from a gas-drilling tax to boost the state's share of school funding according to a comprehensive formula, bringing spending closer to adequate levels and possibly easing property taxes.
The Democrat also supports a return to a locally elected school board in Philadelphia. Corbett supports the current state-controlled School Reform Commission.
While Rendell left Corbett with a huge funding hole, The Inquirer believes it became Corbett's responsibility to fill it, and his failure to do so has had serious consequences. We support Wolf's commitment to robust school funding. And given the SRC's shortcomings, some form of locally appointed or elected school governance should be considered.
Public pensions: Corbett has called for a move toward 401(k)-style pensions for public workers to address what he considers a crisis. He says he would call a special legislative session on the issue if reelected.
Wolf has downplayed the pension problem, saying benefit reforms already in place and perhaps refinancing could address the unfunded liability.
The Inquirer has applauded the governor for taking the pension problem seriously. However, the liability has only grown on his watch, and his proposed reforms would be insufficient even if the legislature had not refused to pass them.
Liquor control: The governor has advocated joining 48 other states in turning over wine and liquor sales to the private sector. He says this would improve consumer convenience while producing a one-time windfall for the state in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Wolf opposes privatization, saying the state should address popular dissatisfaction by improving the booze bureaucracy and making more efforts to take advantage of its purchasing power.
The Inquirer wholeheartedly supports Corbett's will to dismantle the liquor ministry, though, like much of his agenda, it has been frustrated by the legislature. A privatization bill passed the House last year only to be killed by the Senate.
The legislature: Corbett supports reducing the size of the state legislature, a proposal also passed by the House last year before it expired in the Senate.
Wolf argues that reducing the number of legislators would diminish democratic representation.
Like Corbett, The Inquirer has supported shrinking the legislature - which, despite being one of the nation's largest and most expensive, has struggled to address policy challenges.
The judiciary: Corbett and Wolf agree that appellate judges should be appointed rather than elected. So does The Inquirer.
Such points of agreement are rare in this campaign of contrasts. Overall, Wolf envisions a larger, more active state government - the same government Corbett has sought to limit and reduce. The choice for voters is between distinct visions and powers to realize them - Wolf's largely speculative, Corbett's partly demonstrated.