Despite the popularity of outgoing governor (and 1950 U.S. Senate candidate) Jim Duff and the low approval ratings of President Harry Truman, Democrats came into the election with a cautiously optimistic outlook. In Dilworth, they had selected a charismatic candidate with a strong reputation as a reformer after serving as a key figure in the Democratic overthrow of Philadelphia's corrupt Republican political machine. Furthermore, although Republicans held registration advantages throughout the state, many voters were ambivilant toward their policies due to a 1949–50 recession that impacted crucial heavy industries.
In contrast to the energetic Dilworth, the Republican nominee Fine was somewhat uncomfortable in the public eye, after having spent his career as a backroom power player and party boss. Fine had once been a close associate of progressive Governor Gifford Pinchot and had spent the previous twenty years as Northeastern Pennsylvania 's key political figure. Fine represented the consistency of the long-dominant state political machine and, although he was somewhat more conservative than the outgoing governor, was chosen as Duff's hand picked successor to hold steady a Republican ship that was on cruise control.
The election was marked by a variety of brutal personal attacks. First, Fine was forced to wage a contentious primary battle. Jay Cooke, a wealthy Philadelphia banker, mobilized the arch-conservative business wing of the party, while Charles Williams, a Lycoming County Common Pleas Judge, led a small but vocal group of anti-machine Republicans. Although Fine won by twenty points over Cooke, the party had difficulty healing their wounds in the general election. In the fall, Fine and Dilworth further toned up the rhetoric. The Philadelphia Democrat portaryed his opponent as a crony who oversaw a Tammany Hall-style patronage system and asserted that Fine's agenda would "roll back the Twentieth Century." Fine fired back by painting Dilworth as a candidate who would be soft on communism and allow subversives to penetrate state government; he even went so far as to compare state Democrats to a "psychiatric problem." 
On Election Day, Fine only carried the gubernatorial ticket by only about two points, despite Governor Duff's large win in the Senate race. Although Fine ran well in heavily Republican Central Pennsylvania and limited Dilworth's advantage in the Democratic stronghold of metropolitan Pittsburgh, he lost by a slim margin his home base in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. Furthermore, Dilworth was able to gain 42% of the vote in Philadelphia's four suburban counties, despite only 17% of area residents holding Democratic voter registration.