By Edith Honan
YORK, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Four years ago, Pennsylvania businessman Tom Wolf abandoned a promising bid for governor to return to his family's building products company, a once successful business that was spiraling toward collapse after a sale to private investors.
As he undertakes another run for governor, Wolf, who wears a full beard and could be mistaken for a college professor, has made his decision to drop out in 2009 the centerpiece of an advertising blitz that portrays him as a candidate who set aside politics to save a local business and protect jobs.
In just a few months, that multimillion-dollar ad campaign has helped propel Wolf to the front of the Democratic field ahead of the May 20 primary.
The race has attracted national attention not only for Wolf's outsized spending - he has pledged $10 million of his own money - but because Republican Governor Tom Corbett is considered the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country.
"He comes off as the humane businessman," said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll. "Tom Wolf is the non-politician in a world of record disdain for politicians."
Madonna's poll from late February had Wolf leading Democrats with 36 percent, while rivals - including Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz and State Treasurer Rob McCord - polled in the single digits. In a potential matchup with Corbett, elected four years ago, Wolf leads 52 percent to 33 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in February.
With his less well-funded opponents largely absent from the airwaves, Wolf has been able to present a flattering story line directly to voters without much of a counter-argument. But even Wolf's supporters concede the race is sure to tighten.
State Republicans have branded Wolf, who was Secretary of Revenue in Governor Ed Rendell's Democratic administration, as "Taxman Tom Wolf." National Republicans, who deem Corbett's re-election a priority, are bolstering staff on the ground.
"Tom Wolf is running on a tax-and-spend agenda," said Megan Sweeney, spokeswoman for the state Republican party.
In a state that tends toward moderates, Wolf is unapologetically progressive. And, whereas Corbett's principal legacy has been to slash spending and avoid raising taxes, Wolf says he plans to restore the governor's deep cuts to education.
Wolf favors a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas drilling that Corbett has steadfastly opposed. And he supports same-sex marriage and would back a moratorium on capital punishment, though neither idea is likely to win much support in the Republican-led state legislature.
"The goal here is to create a dynamo of economic development that is a magnet for people who are going to create great jobs," he told Reuters in a recent interview.
THE 'GUY NEXT DOOR'
Wolf's tagline is "not your ordinary candidate" and his ads focus on his unusual résumé: degrees from Dartmouth and MIT, a stint with the Peace Corps and the family's practice of transferring some 20 percent of its business profits to its employees.
"I grew up here and I believe that we can do a lot better than we're doing," Wolf said. "Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, I want to step up and try to do it myself."
After completing one year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, in 1968, Wolf took a leave to "preach the gospel of high-yielding rice" as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural India.
For a time, Wolf saw himself pursuing a career in academia, and after Dartmouth he earned a PhD in political science at MIT.
But he wanted a role in public life. He returned to the family business - starting out on a forklift - in York, a once-thriving industrial hub 100 miles from Philadelphia that has fallen on hard times.
In 1985, Wolf and two of his cousins bought control of the company and helped turn it into one of the largest building products firms in the United States. Two decades later, he and his partners sold 47 percent of it to an investment firm. Wolf turned to politics.
With the recession of 2008, the business was in steep decline, and in early 2009 Wolf announced he would drop out of the governor's race to rejoin the company, assuming that would be the end of his political career.
Wolf says the company is again in good standing, and in December he again relinquished its top title.
"I've actually built a business twice in my life," he said.
Around York, Wolf has a reputation for being down to earth and devoted to the community, and is treated as a hometown hero.
"When they say 'Guy Next Door,' that's what he is," said Amber Rivera, 33, who grew up a few houses down from Wolf. "He lives modestly. He drives a jeep he's had forever. I feel like the commercials really do him justice."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson)