And the winner is … Lynn Swann. In both delivery and substance, GOP challenger Lynn Swann outclassed Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in the first of two scheduled televised debates this month.
Swann, who is trailing in the polls with about 30 days to go before the election, won the debate by holding his own against Rendell, widely regarded as the "consummate politician."
Rendell was hesitant and rambling and lost his temper a few times under stinging criticism from Swann. Rendell fired off a few cheap shots at Swann, calling the NFL Hall of Famer a "celebrity" and ridiculing Swann's plan for property tax relief, calling it a "disaster."
Swann kept his composure the entire time. He recounted Rendell's record of failures and broken promises.
Rendell appeared condescending several times and his attempts at humor bombed. In contrast, Swann looked and sounded like a serious candidate for governor. While Rendell spouted off statistics and rattled off bureaucratic gibberish, Swann shared a positive vision for Pennsylvania's future.
Forget the spin from Rendell's pals in the liberal media. I watched Wednesday's debate twice, the first time to gauge the candidates' composure and demeanor. The second time I listened to every word as Swann and Rendell answered a dozen questions posed by TV and newspaper journalists from Pittsburgh. The next debate is Tuesday in Philadelphia.
If Swann does as well next week, he could narrow the gap against Rendell, who has millions to spend on television ads.
Here's a look at how the candidates did at various stages of the debate.
OPENING REMARKS: Swann was animated and persuasive as a citizen politician who wants to clean up the mess in Harrisburg. "I believe in the two R's. I believe in reform and I believe in results," Swann said. "My opponent also believes in the two R's. He believes in rhetoric and he believes in Rendell." In the other corner, Rendell was visibly uncomfortable as he grasped for any accomplishments during a first term in which he raised taxes, increased state spending to record levels, ushered in the flawed casino gambling plan and signed the infamous July 2005 pay raise bill.
THE BLAME GAME: After admitting that signing the pay raise was a "mistake," Rendell offered several excuses for failing to deliver on his promise of a 30-percent property tax cut for every Pennsylvania homeowner. His worst was: "Let's begin with the proposition that no governor over the past 50 years all promised tax relief and didn't do it." In other words, Rendell didn't have to keep his promise because his predecessors also lied to get elected. Lame.
MORE BLAME: Rendell also blamed the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to deliver property tax relief, conveniently ignoring the fact that every Democrat in the House voted against the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes by expanding the sales tax.
PROMISES: After blaming everyone else about his failure to deliver property tax relief, Rendell had the nerve to ask voters to give him another extension on his four-year-old pledge: "I'm going to go work to see if we can do some tax shifting next year."
HONEST ED: Gov. Rendell admitted Pennsylvania is facing a potentially devastating fiscal crisis if it does not address the astronomical costs of funding pensions for teachers and state workers. By 2011, the state will have to spend at least $1 billion a year to fund those pension plans, Rendell said. And local school districts may go bankrupt trying to pay their share of the pension costs. That was a rare moment of honesty from Pennsylvania's chief spin doctor.
BEST QUESTION: A reporter asked Rendell if the tax increases school districts will impose over the next few years will offset the promised tax cuts from casino revenues. The governor admitted sheepishly: "They might and that's why we have to do more and give broader tax relief." Is that another way of saying Rendell’s tax relief plan is a sham?
NO REPLY: Rendell had no response to Swann's charges that Pennsylvania doctors are fleeing the state because of skyrocketing medical malpractice premiums or why 10 Pennsylvania hospitals have shut their doors or why 900,000 working Pennsylvanians can't afford health insurance.
NO REPLY II: Rendell did not counter Swann's charges that Pennsylvania schools are failing despite more money being poured into public education. In a splendid response after Rendell boasted of spending money to buy laptop computers for inner-city students, Swann said, "Having a laptop computer is a great tool, but what good is it if you can't read?"
FUTURE BLACKMAIL: In a statement that could come back to haunt him, Rendell said he will not seek an expansion to full casinos during his second term, even though neighboring states have table games and the casino industry will tell you Pennsylvania won't be competitive with just slots.
SWANN'S WORST ANSWER: Swann offered no plan for dealing with future pay raises for elected officials. Rendell endorsed the concept of an independent citizen commission to set salaries. Of course that won't work either, but at least it's a plan.
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: Rendell sliced apart Swann's plan for providing tax relief, but Swann failed to counter, other than saying, "Ed's numbers are wrong." Swann needs to do a better job of explaining his tax plan to voters.
SWANN'S BEST COMEBACK: After Rendell washed his hands of the tax cut promise, Swann struck this body blow: "Ed Rendell made a mistake. He promised us 30 percent and he didn't deliver on it. Now the fact that he didn't deliver, he wants a do-over. When does the governor become accountable for making a bad decision?"
SMOKERS BEWARE: If re-elected, Rendell promised to ban smoking in all public places in Pennsylvania, including bars and restaurants. Swann said he didn't think the government should tell business owners how to run their establishments.
CLOSING REMARKS: Swann finished strong. "Government shouldn't be this complicated. And with all the experience this administration has, they still failed to give us the kind of leadership we need. The pay raise was still signed. So ask yourself what you would like to see over the next four years. Reform and results, or rhetoric?" Rendell rambled on with the standard liberal view that government should be involved in every aspect of a person's life. In Pennsylvania, that usually means having someone reach into your pockets.