The Pennsylvania senatorial candidate debate between Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic state auditor Bob Casey Jr. on Monday night had none of the rhetorical fireworks of the finger-pointing and antagonism displayed during their Oct. 12 showdown in Pittsburgh.
Instead the two candidates worked to define one another while further distancing themselves from President Bush in their final debate of the year.
Moderators George Stephanopoulos from ABC News and Jim Gardner from ABC affiliate WPVI-TV covered the gamut of hot-button issues, including Iraq, North Korea, immigration, Social Security and Iran, but the exchanges between Santorum and Casey, while more substantive in nature than last week, ostensibly reduced the choice to "a candidate of status quo" who consistently votes alongside the president, and the beneficiary of a popular two-term governor who waffles on decisive policy questions.
The two contrasted sharply on most issues.
When pressed on what the United States should do if both North Korea and Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Casey said the government should exercise "every option on the table" before launching an attack on the president.
"I think this administration should make sure that it listens to military experts, something the Bush administration has not done very well when it comes to Iraq," he said.
Santorum established early his "nonanswer" charge, which he leveled at Casey first after this response and continued throughout he debate.
While Casey emphasized enforcing sanctions, Santorum criticized his opponent for reportedly opposing the missile defense system, which could be used to counter North Korea's efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile and bunker-buster bombs that could potentially penetrate underground nuclear facilities.
"We need to have the tools on the table," Santorum said, "and he will not put them there."
Santorum also said that he would support "without question" a military strike on Iran if that country got close to developing a nuclear weapon. North Korea, he claimed, would use the bomb chiefly for defensive purposes while Iran "has told us they will use it for offensive purposes."
He described his clash with President Bush over contingency plans for Iran, a country that Santorum sees as the focal point of the war on terror.
But on Iraq, the largest issue looming in this race and the primary reason Santorum trails Casey in virtually every poll, the candidates' main objective was to distance themselves from the administration, almost to erect a buffer for their proposals.
Santorum said he had been "criticized by some" for requesting "a second look at it," but he remains emphatic about maintaining the U.S. effort in the country.
Casey repeated his call for greater accountability on Iraq within the government and to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"We need new leadership when it comes to Iraq. One way to do that, and one measure of accountability, is to replace Don Rumsfeld. Mr. Santorum thinks Mr. Rumsfeld is doing a 'fine' job. I don't," Casey said.
Casey, Santorum retorted, was two-for-two: two questions, two "nonanswers."