Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey accused each other of being "extreme" and outside the mainstream in the first debate of a Pennsylvania Senate race that's suddenly turned into a dead heat
. Sestak lumped Toomey with Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell and George W. Bush. But Toomey went the whole hour without mentioning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a name many Republicans are wielding in efforts to tar their opponents
The debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia showcased a pair of opposites. Sestak, elected to the House in 2006, repeatedly mentioned his 31 years in the Navy, including as a national security aide to President Clinton, and the government health care that saved his daughter when she was stricken with brain cancer. He said the "Bush-Toomey era" produced zero job growth and a deep recession, and he voted for government spending packages to keep the economy from tanking further. "Sometimes you have to take care of other people's messes and just clean them up," Sestak said.
Toomey, who worked on Wall Street, helped start a family business, served in the House from 1999-2005 and then became head of the anti-tax, anti-regulation group Club for Growth, painted Sestak as anti-Israel, ignorant of how business works and aligned with his party's liberal fringe. He said Sestak never met a bailout he didn't like – and that soaring government spending and deficits are having "a chilling effect" on private-sector job growth.
It was moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC's "Good Morning America" who first brought up Palin. She gave Toomey a nod of approval
this week, writing on her Facebook page that Congress needs him and other Republicans from manufacturing and energy-producing states. Stephanopoulos asked Toomey what he thought of her role, and whether he considers her qualified to be president. Toomey did not answer the second part. As for the first, he said he welcomes "all allies" across the spectrum in his quest to stop government overreach and over-spending.
Toomey, who is trying to broaden his appeal to independents and moderates, did not accuse Sestak of supporting an Obama or Pelosi agenda. In fact, the only times he mentioned Obama were to say he supported Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan and would have voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's first appointee to the Supreme Court.
Sestak, who needs to fire up Democrats, seized his opportunity to discuss the Tea Party and some of its polarizing figures and ideas. He acknowledged that Toomey had "won the very coveted award of an endorsement by Sarah Palin" but said he is concerned about "those extreme candidates that are actually taking advantage of the extreme fringe of the Tea Party." Those "running with Congressman Toomey
" include "Miss O'Donnell next door," he said, referring to the surprise winner of the GOP Senate nomination in Delaware, much of which is in the Philadelphia media market.
Some in the Tea Party want to do away with the 14th Amendment (which defines citizenship and guarantees due process), Sestak said, and think "there can be a state-established religion." He then tacked onto that list "Congressman Toomey's belief that corporations should have zero taxes
" and added, "If it's a program for the people, he's against it. If it's a program for corporations, he's for it."
Toomey countered that Sestak not only voted for all bailouts, he introduced his own bailout bill (for underwater homeowners) and wanted a $1 trillion stimulus package "because $800 billion of money we didn't have wasn't enough." He also said Sestak voted for a version of health reform that would have allowed states to ban private insurance (a characterization Sestak's campaign later disputed) and a cap-and-trade energy bill that would "devastate" the economy. "That's a very extreme agenda and it's out of step with Pennsylvania," Toomey said.
Abortion was another topic of diametric opposition. Toomey said the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion was "mistakenly determined" and he supports its repeal. He said Sestak is "in that fringe of members, very liberal, who believe in taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand and no restrictions at all."
Sestak responded: "Palin, Toomey, O'Donnell. They all would like to overturn Roe versus Wade. I believe that those life decisions of a family should be made within the family. I don't think government should intervene. And I respect precedents on the Supreme Court."
Poll Watch: Joe Sestak Catches Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania as Democrats Re-Engage
For the record, Toomey said he would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest and if a woman's life was in danger (unlike O'Donnell, who opposes the rape and incest exceptions). Also for the record, Sestak told Toomey that "I voted against taxpayers funding it. And you know it. "
The pair also sparred over Social Security and Toomey's proposal to offer younger workers private options within the system. "I want to make this program last for future generations," he said. Sestak said Toomey would "take the security out of Social Security" by encouraging people to risk their money in the stock market. "A lot of young people would choose the option that I would offer," Toomey shot back, adding: "Joe has no solutions for this."
There was at least one subject on which Sestak and Toomey agreed – that national security hinges in the long run on the health of the U.S. economy. But they disagreed on most other aspects. Toomey said for instance that he wanted terrorists tried in military tribunals, not civilian courts, especially the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "This would be a circus. It would be very dangerous. Who knows what terrorists would do to try to disrupt the proceedings," he said.
Sestak, who retired as a three-star admiral and says he's the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress, made one of his many references to his background. He said he walked out of the Pentagon 25 minutes before the plane slammed into it on 9/11, and "men and women who worked for me never came out." He said Bush put 200 terrorists on trial in civilian courts and suggested that's an issue now because it's a campaign season.
Neither candidate seemed to support a deadline for getting out of Afghanistan. Toomey said it might be worth negotiating with the Taliban if the end result is they surrender and lay down their arms. Sestak said benchmarks and measurements are needed. "We need to roll it up, but finding out first if we're being successful," he said.
Sestak won the Democratic nomination in May with a come-from-behind victory over Sen. Arlen Specter,
who left the GOP last year after polls showed he'd lose the GOP primary to the far more conservative Toomey. Until this week, Sestak was trailing Toomey as well. But several new party and public polls show the race now tied, raising the stakes for the pair's second and final debate Friday in Pittsburgh.
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