Senate candidates Joe Sestak, left, and Pat Toomey, right, prepare for a debate moderated by David Johnson, center, at the WPXI studio Friday night.
By James O'Toole Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They might not be having a beer together again any time soon.
Two candidates who have made a point of voicing respect for one another exchanged often searing criticisms last night as Pat Toomey and Rep. Joe Sestak met for the last debate before their U.S. Senate showdown Nov. 2.
Mr. Toomey, the Republican nominee, again portrayed his opponent as an advocate of bailouts and deficits that he maintained are blocking a national economic recovery. Mr. Sestak underscored his characterization of the former congressman as a servant of corporate interests.
The contenders in this apparently close race renewed the competition they had shown in their first debate Wednesday in Philadelphia over who could paint the other as the more extreme figure.
"He's so extreme he's to the left of Nancy Pelosi," Mr. Toomey said of the Delaware County Democrat.
"One of the zaniest ideas I've ever heard is that he wants to eliminate all taxes for corporations," Mr. Sestak said of the Republican.
While Mr. Toomey has criticized corporate taxes in the past, including in a television interview repeated in one of Mr. Sestak's commercials, he underlined his current position that corporate taxes should be reduced to 25 percent from their current rate of 35 percent, a level he depicted as a bar to investment and employment.
Both candidates offered support for cuts in capital gains taxes on investments. Mr. Sestak said they should be targeted to small business, while Mr. Toomey called for a broader cut in the tax.
Both candidates pointed to elements of their biographies calculated to contradict the caricatures presented by their opponent. Again and again, Mr. Sestak offered allusions to his background as an admiral in the U.S. Navy. Mr. Toomey, a former businessman and investment banker, made several references of his blue collar roots, pointing out that his father had been a member of a labor union.
The exchanges came as a variety of polls showed a distinct tightening of a race in which the Republican had led by comfortable margins almost since the primary. Quinnipiac University's latest survey, released earlier this week, showed Mr. Toomey, a former GOP congressman, with a lead of 48 percent to 46 percent, within its margin of error.
The Rasmussen survey saw Mr. Toomey with a slightly larger edge, 48 percent to 44 percent, while the latest daily tracking poll from Muhlenberg College found a dead heat, 43 percent to 43 percent.
The one-hour forum was moderated by WPXI anchor David Johnson, who interspersed his own questions with questions submitted on Facebook or collected from on-the-street interviews. For all the disdain the rivals expressed for each other's policy positions, it was not an angry debate. Both candidates appeared calm throughout as they revisited much of the same territory they had traversed in their previous general election debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Still, there were some pointed exchanges.
Asserting his independence, Mr. Sestak referred to his primary campaign against Sen. Arlen Specter and said, "I'm standing here because I bucked my own party."
"The only time Joe has stood up to his party was to promote his own political career," Mr. Toomey responded.
Mr. Toomey repeated his anti-bailout mantra, contending as he has throughout the campaign that the recovery measures supported by Mr. Sestak had prolonged the effects of the recession.
Revisiting an episode that prompted charges and countercharges between the campaigns this summer, Mr. Toomey criticized the Democrat for failing to follow a self-imposed policy of declining to accept contributions from figures that might benefit from his requests for congressional spending earmarks. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Mr. Sestak had in fact accepted contributions, which, although legal, had violated his self-imposed pledge.
"Once again Congressman Toomey, can't you tell the truth?" Mr. Sestak shot back without responding to the specifics of his opponent's criticism.
The pair also split on whether Pennsylvania should tax Marcellus Shale drillers. Mr. Sestak has said in the past that a severance tax, such as the one being debated in Harrisburg, was reasonable. Mr. Toomey, who has voiced skepticism about additional regulation of the industry, avoided giving an answer, insisting that it was an issue for the state.
"Joe, as usual, takes the extreme view and calls for a moratorium on all drilling," Mr. Toomey said.
"I patrolled those oil lanes in the Persian Gulf in the U.S. Navy," Mr. Sestak said. "Do we need to drill? You bet we do," Mr. Sestak said. "This is a boom, but let's do it right."
After an hour of rehearsing their differences, the opponents offered near identical responses when asked to assess their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Both cited the flaw of trying to do too much while promoting domestic tranquility by each saying that his wife was his greatest asset.