By Thomas Fitzgerald and Chris Palmer, The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, was still speaking Thursday evening when the politician who only needs one name (like a Brazilian soccer star) stepped from behind a curtain, early.
Hillary! The crowd at the National Constitution Center roared at the sight.
In Wayne, on the Main Line, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the afternoon attraction at a less-raucous rally for the re-election of Gov. Tom Corbett.
With two potential 2016 presidential candidates just 14 miles apart, it was hard not to think beyond the current campaign to the one coming — though Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christie took pains to focus on the present.
Clinton’s remarks at a “Women for Wolf” event were salted with populist references to working families that boosted the nominee but also sounded at times like a presidential primary stump speech.
“At a time when corporations seem to have all the rights, but none of the responsibilities of people, you deserve a governor who will put Pennsylvania families first,” she said to a crowd of about 900 people.
Meanwhile, flanked by rows of steely-faced cadets in a half-full banquet hall at Valley Forge Military Academy, Corbett said he’s balanced Pennsylvania’s budget and resisted raising taxes, while the unemployment rate has fallen.
“We’re in a much better situation than we were four years ago,” the governor told a crowd of about 200 who clapped politely.
Then the other governor, Christie, delivered the red meat as he strolled to the lectern to thunderous applause.
He said Wolf was “lying” in blaming Corbett for education cuts, when the administration had increased funding. “We could use a nicer word (for Wolf), but it’s the word that fits him,” said Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which has given $5.8 million to Corbett’s underdog campaign.
“We cannot allow a liar to win the governorship of Pennsylvania,” Christie said.
Polls show Wolf in cruise control, leading by an average of 15 percentage points, with Corbett seeking to solidify support in the GOP base and drive home doubts about Wolf’s plans.
Clinton drew loud cheers when she discussed education, describing cuts that have resulted in 27,000 layoffs and larger class sizes across the state as “heart” and a “down payment on decline.”
The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state also talked about women’s rights, saying that women deserved equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, and to be left alone to make their own health-care decisions.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released earlier in the week found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania women likely to vote on Nov. 4 prefer Wolf, while 34 percent support the incumbent.
“You want to know what Tom Wolf won’t do?” Clinton said, recalling one Corbett gaffe and exaggerating another. “He’ll never tell Pennsylvania women ‘Stop complaining, you just have to close your eyes.’ He will never compare the marriage of loving and committed partners to incest. . ..Pennsylvania has had enough shame and blame.”
Before the rally, Clinton attended a high-priced fundraiser for Wolf behind closed doors in the Constitution Center’s Annenberg auditorium. Wolf aides would not say how much the event was expected to raise.
Christie, too, attended a fundraiser — for Corbett, at an undisclosed private home in Bryn Mawr after the Valley Forge rally.
The Clinton-Wolf public event drew 14 television cameras and more than 50 journalists, including a crew from Japan’s NHK network. Secret Service agents were posted around the room, and hundreds of people began lining up behind metal barricades an hour before the Constitution Center doors opened.
Maureen Kersting, 34, said she has looked up to Clinton almost as long as she can remember.
“Chelsea’s about my age, and I was able to look at Hillary as someone I could relate to, like my mom,” said Kersting, a veterinarian who is a stay-at-home mother. “She did things people didn’t do. She kept her maiden name. She spoke up forcefully, not as ‘the spouse,’ but as her own person. It was ‘Hil and Bill.'”
As people do at many Clinton appearances, attendees said they were excited about the possibility of her becoming the first woman president.
“The country needs a woman,” said Tina Davis of Bucks County. “Women just come to work. That’s it.”
Likewise, there were many in the Wayne crowd who were hoping Christie seeks the GOP nomination in 2016.
Greg Arnoldi, 32, from Drexel Hill, attending with his wife, Kristin, said before the speech, “I’ve got to be brutally honest. We’re Pennsylvania residents. We’re here for Christie, though.” Why? He connects with people.”
Bert Kirsch, from Quakertown in Bucks County, said after the speech that she was impressed by Corbett, too. But she couldn’t contain herself from discussing Christie.
“I hope he runs for president,” she said.
Soon after, she left the hall holding her white Corbett sign.
Clinton and Christie were in agreement on one thing: The election for governor is not over.
“Every race Tom Corbett’s ever been in, he’s been underestimated,” Christie told the crowd. “Every race he’s ever been in, people have thought, ‘No we’re going to be beat Corbett this time.’ And believe me, his opponent thinks the same thing right now, and so now is the time to finish this off.”
In an oblique reference to her failed 2008 run for president, Clinton said she’s seen supposedly insurmountable leads melt before — and told the audience to buckle down for Wolf.
“From my perspective,” she said, “you can’t count on things turning out the way you want them unless you go out and work for it.”
Photo: Tom Wolf via Flickr