Senate candidates Pat Toomey (R) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) sparred for the first time on a public stage Wednesday night, offering Pennsylvania voters a pointed debate on topics such as gun control, the economy and even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
It was clear from the outset that the men don’t particularly like each other. One regularly accused the other of dishonesty, they battled over who was more extreme, and their responses often included thinly veiled jabs.
“For Joe to seriously try to pretend he has any interest in getting spending under control is simply laughable,” Toomey said at one point, soon adding another shot. “There is no end to bailouts with Joe. I think this happens sometimes with people who have no experience in business.”
As Toomey fought to tie the Democratic lawmaker to the nation’s economic woes, Sestak fired back, saying: “He sounds like my parrot at home — again and again, but no solutions.”
Sestak repeatedly tried to connect Toomey with Wall Street interests.
“If it’s a program for the people, he’s against it. If it’s a program for the corporation, he’s for it,” Sestak said in what became a theme for the night.
The hourlong meeting, the first of only two scheduled debates, delivered no surprises. Neither candidate openly stumbled or strayed from his campaign themes.
With just 13 days until Election Day, there has been a shift in the closely watched race, which has been the focus of intense independent spending by outside groups, largely from conservative organizations such as Toomey’s former employer, the Club For Growth. Until Wednesday, Toomey was ahead or tied in every independent poll released since May. But a Muhlenberg College survey released Wednesday morning gave Sestak an edge of 3 percentage points, which is within the margin of error.
There was no mention, however, of the polls during the debate at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
The focus shifted from the economy to abortion to foreign policy. In one of the few unusual questions of the night, panelist George Stephanopoulos noted that Palin had endorsed Toomey the day before and asked whether she is qualified to be president.
Toomey avoided the question in his response. “Whoever’s endorsing me in this campaign, I’m grateful for,” he said, without mentioning the 2008 vice presidential candidate’s name. Palin is considered a possible presidential contender in 2012.
Sestak jumped on the question. “I know he won the very coveted award of the endorsement of Sarah Palin,” he said.
Sestak regularly referenced his Navy service during the debate, noting, for example, that he was the most senior military officer to serve in Congress. He said he headed the Navy’s anti-terrorism unit and spent time on the ground in Afghanistan. “We were hunting terrorists,” Sestak said.
Toomey, meanwhile, said little about his own work history. “I left Wall Street 20 years ago,” he said, turning the focus to his opponent’s ties to the Obama administration.
Just as the candidates generally stuck to their talking points, the Republican and Democratic Senatorial campaign committees offered equally predictable statements.
“Tonight’s debate provided Pennsylvanians with a very clear choice: liberal Congressman Joe Sestak’s extreme agenda of job-killing tax hikes, reckless spending and out-of-control debt in Washington proves beyond a doubt that he’s just too liberal for Pennsylvania,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Amber Marchand said. “Meanwhile, Pat Toomey’s commonsense proposals will help create jobs and get Pennsylvania’s economy moving again while getting our nation’s skyrocketing debt under control.”
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Deirdre Murphy said, “Tonight’s debate crystallized the choice Pennsylvanians face, that between a candidate who is far outside the Pennsylvania mainstream, and has stood tall for the special interests and Wall Street for decades, and a candidate who has consistently fought for middle-class families.”
Sestak and Toomey will debate for the final time Friday night.