Battle of the Extremes: Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey Face Off in Pennsylvania Senate Debate

Oct 20, 2010 9:58pm

The Pennsylvania Senate candidates really offered voters two clear choices tonight. Here is analysis of the debate from my colleague Michael Falcone.

ABC’s Michael Falcone reports:

In their first televised debate of the general election Wednesday night, the two candidates running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania tried to portray the other as more extreme and out of touch with the state’s voters.

Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., squared off with former three-term Congressman Pat Toomey in an hour-long debate co-moderated by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos and news anchor Jim Gardner of local ABC affiliate WPVI. The candidates tackled a buffet of thorny issues: health care reform, abortion, judicial nominations and the war in Afghanistan, among others.

Sestak did his best to tie Toomey to political figures like Sarah Palin and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who he argued were on the “extreme fringe” of the Republican Party. He noted that Palin endorsed Toomey this week, calling the former Alaska governor’s seal of approval a “very coveted award.”

Toomey used the same strategy against his Democratic opponent. “The person who’s the extreme candidate that is so far out of touch with Pennsylvania is Joe Sestak,” Toomey said.

Sestak laid part of the blame for the country’s economic downturn at Toomey’s feet, referring to the “Bush-Toomey era,” a period when he said “zero jobs” were created and repeatedly referred to his opponent’s prior work on Wall Street.

Toomey, meanwhile, accused Sestak of supporting a “reckless spending” agenda in Washington that had led to a “chilling effect on our economy.”

“He voted for all of the bailouts and then introduced his own bill to create a new bailout,” Toomey said. “That stimulus bill — Joe might be the only person in the United States who thinks that should have been a trillion dollars.”

The debate took a number of nasty turns. At one point Sestak said that his opponent, “sounds like my parrot at home — again and again, offering no solutions.”

And during a lengthy exchange about Social Security, Toomey lashed out at Sestak: “Joe’s demagoguery knows no limits, apparently.”

Sestak appears to be benefitting from some late-stage momentum heading into the final week before Election Day.  A new Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll released hours before Wednesday night’s debate gave Sestak a 3 percentage point edge over Toomey, 44 percent to 41 percent with 15 percent of voters undecided. At least one other poll this week also showed Sestak with a narrow edge after trailing Toomey for months in almost every public opinion survey.

ABC News recently changed the rating of the Pennsylvania Senate contest from “Lean Republican” to “Toss Up.” The race has also become a magnet for money from outside groups, with both Democratic and GOP interests spending heavily.

In a particularly feisty back-and-forth, Toomey took issue with the new health care reform law, predicting that “in time the government is going to intervene between patients and their doctors,” while Sestak defended his vote for the bill saying that his daughter, who survived a malignant brain tumor, “can no longer be denied care by his insurance companies.”

On the issue of abortion Toomey did not mince words: “I think Roe vs. Wade was mistakenly determined, and I would support its repeal,” although he added he had no litmus test for Supreme Court judges.

“Palin, Toomey, O’Donnell  — they all would like to overturn Roe vs. Wade,” Sestak said in response. “I believe that those life decisions of a family should be made within the family, I don’t think government should intervene.”

Throughout the debate Sestak highlighted his service in the U.S. Navy, rising through the ranks to become a vice admiral. He cited his national security credentials in an answer to a question about whether he thought people on the terrorist watch list should be banned from buying firearms in this country.

“I do believe about reasonable laws that ensure criminals including the worst of criminals — terrorists — cannot gain access to weapons,” Sestak said.

The candidates found common ground on only a few issues on Wednesday night. They agreed that the United States should not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and that Iran’s ongoing economic insecurity was the biggest threat to national security.

The two candidates are vying to replace veteran Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who Sestak defeated in the Democratic primary earlier this year.

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