What Pennsylvania voters want in the upcoming election can be summed up in one word: substance.

This isn’t a normal election year.

The state is in a recession and faces a massive budget shortfall. A smiling politician promising utopia for nothing won’t cut it this time.

Nor will short TV ads blasting other candidates. That sounds just like what’s going on in Washington, and people are tired of it, judging by the letters to the editor and commentaries filling these editorial pages and many other media outlets in the state.

If Pennsylvania’s major candidates really want to set a different tone, they need to hold at least three debates before the election.

At the moment, gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato have only one confirmed joint appearance at a Pennsylvania Chamber and Industry event in Derry Township in late September. That’s a start, but the campaigns had better be able to find time for at least two more. Even hard-pressed presidential candidates manage that.

Ideally, one entire debate would focus solely on the economy and the Pennsylvania budget, a topic that neither candidate has given a satisfactory answer as to how he would plug the $5 billion deficit projected for next year. Another topic ripe for discussion is Marcellus Shale, perhaps even at an event in a top drilling area.

To their credit, Corbett and Onorato participated in many candidate forums in the primaries. But now it’s crunch time. Voters are more attuned and the issues, especially the financial ones, are imminent.

In 2006, Gov. Rendell and Republican challenger Lynn Swann managed to hold a debate in Pittsburgh and another in Philadelphia in addition to the Pennsylvania Chamber event.

It seems only appropriate that this year’s candidates follow a similar path and have at least one debate in the western, central and eastern parts of the state.

The same challenge goes out to U.S. Senate candidates Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak.

They were all too keen to debate each other in the primaries. They held two debates on the hefty issues of health care and the economy. Both blasted incumbent Arlen Specter for refusing to do more debates (in the end he did only one with Sestak).

Now these two candidates who were so eager to face off in the primaries have yet to formally schedule any debates, although they, too, have been invited to the Pennsylvania Chamber event, among many others.

Spirited debates are a great American tradition. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held seven of them in 1858, sparking a new tradition of oratory style.

Through the years, debates have been broadcast on radio and then television and now on the Internet. In a media age of seconds-long sound bites, debates are the best chance most voters have to hear political hopefuls out.

If Pennsylvania’s major ballot candidates can’t find the time for three honest and substantive debates about the future of this state and country, then they don’t have their priorities in order.

(The [Harrisburg] Patriot-News)

(Compiled from The Associated Press)

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