Several hundred supporters and opponents of health care reform shouted competing cheers and jeers outside, while 200 of their brethren inside the Belmont Complex in Kittanning put the heat on Sen. Arlen Specter this afternoon.
As he closed the hour-and-15-minute town hall meeting, having taken 30 questions and heard an earful of boos and taunts, the Pennsylvania Democrat quipped that the temperature in Kittanning is about 235 degrees Fahrenheit -- well past boiling.
It was the fourth town hall in three days for Mr. Specter, who faces a tough re-election fight next year.
The majority of the audience was clearly against the various plans that await Congress when it returns from its August recess. They often shouted down questions and answers with which they disagreed.
The questions -- which, according to Specter staffers, were distributed to those who were in the front of the line to people who arrived as early as 7 a.m. -- were more of an even split along ideological lines.
In the only significant disruption, a man approached and confronted Mr. Specter toward the end, loudly accusing him of planting some of the questions in the audience.
"You're a socialist, fascist pig," the man said as he stormed out, prompting applause from many in the crowd.
"Let the record show the man left on his own," Mr. Specter said.
The senator injected humor at times and mostly deflected criticisms by saying people will be able to keep their own insurance plans if they like them and reminding his constituents that no bill has made it to the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate, and that several versions of potential legislation exist.
But many in the crowd didn't believe it or trust what he said.
When Mr. Specter said that any proposed bill would allow people to keep the doctor they have, some audience members yelled, "Liar," and held up their hand in the shape of an L.
Many decried the health care effort as socialism and equated it with other expensive government-expanding measures of President Barack Obama, such as the stimulus package.
"I don't think this gathering has anything to do with health care," Paul Ambrose, 63 of Canonsburg, said outside the hall. "It's nothing but a power grab to create dependency and assure the Democratic status quo stays in power."
Nearby stood Toni Yates, 60, of Ford City, who campaigned for Mr. Obama. Ms. Yates said she received e-mails from Moveon.org and Organizing for America, which she said is using contacts and strategy from the Obama campaign to build support for his policies. She said she's in favor of a health care overhaul and was pleased to see in attendance many who support the reforms.
"It's time we got our message across, too," she said.
Speaking to reporters after the town hall, Mr. Specter said he feels the deluge of news media coverage -- especially on television -- of the raucous town halls has fueled the crowds. But he said he didn't think the public tide has turned against reforming health care this year, especially since a final proposal isn't even on the table.
"I think it all remains to be seen," Mr. Specter said. "The jury's not out. We haven't even found the jury yet."
Daniel Malloy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1731.