HARRISBURG, Pa. - In a gubernatorial primary race that for months was marked more by congeniality than conflict, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz is putting York County businessman Tom Wolf's front-runner status to the test.
With her nearly 10 years in Congress and 14 years in the state Senate, Schwartz has the most experience in government and politics among the four Democratic candidates. As the campaign heated up last year, many observers viewed her as the candidate to beat.
Wolf, a businessman and political novice whose TV advertising blitz helped propel him to an early lead, has the least - less than two years as state revenue secretary in the Rendell administration.
This month alone, Schwartz called out Wolf in a debate for not being forthcoming about a loan that accounted for nearly half of the $10 million he gave to his campaign and forced him to acknowledge that written passages from a Johnson Controls Inc. statement on energy efficiency were copied into his campaign plan without proper attribution.
Nearly half the state's Democratic voters had not decided whom to support at the end of March, according to an independent poll by Franklin & Marshall College. Of those who had made up their minds, one-third favored Wolf while Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and former Environment Protection Secretary Katie McGinty had 4 to 7 percent each.
Schwartz has "got to shake this race up" if she expects to win the nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, said Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall professor who supervises the poll. Corbett is expected to easily defeat primary challenger Bob Guzzardi.
This week, Schwartz attracted national attention when she unveiled a TV ad touting her involvement in the development of President Barack Obama's signature health care law and defending the expansion of the Medicaid program that it authorizes.
Some political analysts held up Schwartz as an example of the rare Democrat who is running on the thorny issue in this year's election cycle, even though many others quietly support it, and she appeared on two MSNBC talk shows.
Back home, she used the ad to scold Corbett for refusing to expand Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania residents while his administration seeks federal approval to instead subsidize an expansion of the private health insurance market. And even though her Democratic foes share her position, she suggested their support was not vigorous enough.
"Tom Wolf and the other Democrats in the race have been evasive in their support of and pride in the Affordable Care Act," she said in a statement. "If they won't say they are proud of this law and its success now, then they won't be able to take on Tom Corbett or get the (law) implemented right for Pennsylvania."
Schwartz isn't the only candidate to zero in on Wolf in the weeks leading up to the May 20 primary. McCord recently aired a TV commercial implying that Wolf is "a sucker" for proposing a new 5 percent severance tax on the extraction gas. McCord has proposed a 10 percent levy.
"Tom Wolf and the others would leave hundreds of millions of dollars in the drillers' pockets. That's a bad deal for Pennsylvania," he says in the ad. "I'm tired of being played for a sucker. If you are, too, join me."
McGinty is taking the high road, stressing what she hopes to achieve as governor.
"We're confident that Katie's positive message is enough for us to win on Election Day," said her campaign spokesman, Mike Mikus.
Wolf's campaign said Schwartz and McCord "have decided the only way for them to try to win is by attacking Tom."
"It's sad that they would stoop to this level - it's politics as usual and it's desperate," said spokesman Mark Nicastre.
Then again, it just might work.