By Daniel Kelley
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Pennsylvania businessman and former Peace Corps volunteer Tom Wolf claimed victory on Tuesday in a four-way Democratic primary race to challenge Republican Governor Tom Corbett in the November general election.
Wolf, a political novice who poured his personal fortune into the race and dominated the airwaves for much of the primary campaign, claimed the nomination with 58 percent of the vote from less than half of the precincts reporting, according to state election returns.
"As of today, as of this moment, let's get started," Wolf told a crowd at Santander Stadium in his hometown of York, Pennsylvania.
His closest rival, U.S. Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, followed with 18 percent of the vote, while state Treasurer Rob McCord trailed with 16 percent.
Schwartz, McCord and a third contender, Katie McGinty, a former White House aide who served as the state's top environmental official, all conceded defeat.
Corbett ranks among the most vulnerable Republican governors in the nation. He had no challenger in the Republican primary but faces deep dissatisfaction within his own party.
A large share of Republicans who went to the polls on Tuesday apparently declined to even record a vote for Corbett, leaving his lieutenant governor, Jim Cawley, with more votes than the governor as of 10 p.m., with 50 percent of precincts reporting.
Wolf ran up an early lead in public opinion polls before the race with a series of autobiographical ads focusing on his efforts to persevere during the recession.
"Here's what's remarkable: a candidate who nobody knew anything about takes a 25-point lead three weeks after his commercials start running - and then nothing changes," said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.
In a state that tends toward moderates, Wolf, who ran his family's cabinet-making business in York, is unapologetically progressive.
He favors a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas drilling that Corbett has steadfastly opposed. And, whereas Corbett's principal legacy has been to slash spending and avoid raising taxes, Wolf says he plans to restore funding the governor cut from education.
State Republicans have branded Wolf, who served as secretary of revenue in Governor Ed Rendell's Democratic administration, as "Taxman Tom Wolf," while Corbett's team has sought to cast Wolf as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Wolf's Democratic rivals also have been attacking him in recent weeks, but his approval ratings stayed constant.
"So far, he's been through a negative campaign and he's come through it without any gaffes, without any missteps," Madonna said. "He's on message, upbeat, not shrill. It's what voters want."
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Richard Chang and Stephen Coates)