In the Gilded Age the Pennsylvania Society Dinner featured smoke-filled rooms where the state’s political brokers cut deals and created tickets. Those days are gone but it’s still an opportunity for candidates to showcase their political skills and build relationships. The Pennsylvania Society weekend remains the unofficial kickoff of the gubernatorial election campaign.

By Quantum's Charlie Gerow. As published in the December 18th Philadelphia Region's Business.

The Democratic candidates who attended the annual gathering of the state’s business and political leadership sought to distinguish themselves from the already crowded field.

They paraded through events stopping only to hobnob with key politicos or chat with reporters. At a few events they got to speak. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was the only candidate to host his own event, a well-attended soiree at the World Bar. By the time it was his turn to say hello, his voice was so hoarse from trying to be heard over the other events that he was barely audible.

Other candidates chose to make the rounds of gatherings hosted by the state’s largest law firms, banks, colleges, labor unions and trade associations. Presumed frontrunner Allyson Schwartz, the Philadelphia area Congresswoman, got a moment in the batter’s box at a premier event hosted by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. But she didn’t really get wood on the ball. She didn’t appear to even try to connect with the business community gathered in the opulent Metropolitan Club, choosing instead to serve up a litany of platitudes which, although a safe play, was also a missed opportunity.

The Pennsylvania Society weekend remains the unofficial kickoff of the gubernatorial election campaign.

Faring slightly better was State Treasurer Rob McCord, although he, too, chose to play it safe and not venture into outlining any grand vision of how to address the state’s future.

Former Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf made minor headlines by announcing that he would donate the money he’d have spent on a party in NY to food banks in his home area. It was an interesting twist and a look into the kind of campaign the largely self-funded candidate will run. Wolf, incidentally, was still prominent in NY.

But the announced field of Democrats failed to dazzle most folks. “Undecided” remains the prohibitive favorite in the race thus far. Which candidate can articulate a compelling vision for Pennsylvania’s future and demonstrate the personal skills necessary to run one of the largest states in the union is an open question and the New York getaway provided few answers.

This has led to considerable speculation about the potential candidacies of two who have not announced their intentions: former Auditor General Jack Wagner and Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Most of the “buzz” of the weekend wasn’t about the announced eight. Instead there were a lot of “what ifs” focused on Wagner and Kane. That says a lot about the Democratic pack already on the track.

Meanwhile Governor Tom Corbett had an exceptional weekend. He was cheerfully ubiquitous, running from one event to another with a spring in his step that was not unnoticed by longtime observers of Pennsylvania’s political scene.

He sounded like a governor running for re-election. At every stop he outlined his successes in promoting economic growth and creating jobs. He trumpeted the fact that he has done what the people asked him to do: control spending and keep the lid on taxes. And he outlined a vision for future prosperity for the commonwealth.

The weekend was also a victory lap for the Governor and his team who put together a winning coalition of business and labor leaders, local government officials and community activists to secure transportation funding. It was not only a major legislative win for him, but a victory for Pennsylvanians who will greatly benefit from safer roads and bridges and less traffic congestion.

Many of Pa.’s chattering class have talked about Gov. Corbett’s perceived vulnerabilities going into his campaign. By the end of the Pennsylvania Society weekend few were selling him short. Virtually all acknowledge it’s going to be a horserace.

That race is clearly on.