PHILADELPHIA -- As the two contenders for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat take the stage to debate here tonight, there may be a new leader for the first time.
A new survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling shows Democrat Joe Sestak ahead of Republican Pat Toomey, 46 percent to 45 percent. A second poll released Tuesday night showed an even greater advantage for Mr. Sestak. An Allentown Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Tracker poll showed the Mr. Sestak leading Mr. Toomey 44 percent to 41 percent with 15 percent undecided.
Democrats released internal polls last week showing a tight race, but these were the first public independent polls showing Mr. Sestak leading in a contest Mr. Toomey has led consistently since the general election campaign began.
In August, a Public Policy poll showed Mr. Toomey with a 45-36 lead on his Democratic rival, a second-term congressman from Delaware County and former Navy admiral. At that point, Mr. Toomey and conservative allies had been airing television ads almost unopposed for months.
Around Labor Day, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Mr. Sestak's campaign hit the airwaves and now Pennsylvania television viewers have been inundated with competing ads featuring everything from sock puppets to dog feces. The media campaigns coincided with a general rise in interest in the midterm elections as Nov. 2 neared.
Tom Jensen, the director of Raleigh, N.C., based Public Policy Polling, said that the Sestak surge was driven primarily by two factors. First, Mr. Sestak has brought nearly all of the undecided independents into his corner. Mr. Toomey led that category 50-23 percent in August, but now leads 49 percent to 48 percent.
Secondly, Mr. Jensen said, "We found that Democrats are much more likely to vote than we were seeing in August -- that's what we're finding across the country.
"It's not going to be the major turnout that they had in 2008, but it's starting to look like less of a gap than we saw over the summer."
A comeback by Mr. Sestak would not be unprecedented. He stormed back to overtake Sen. Arlen Specter in the final days of this year's primary race and in 2006 he unseated U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon after trailing by a large margin until the end. Still, in those two races, Mr. Sestak was running in a Democratic primary against a 30-year Republican and against a candidate under FBI investigation.
This time, Mr. Jensen noted that Mr. Sestak still has a tough task in winning over the remaining undecided voters, who disapprove of the job Mr. Obama is doing by a 49-36 margin.
Both candidates will attempt to woo that final group today at 7 p.m. at the National Constitution Center. The debate, moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, will air live on WTAE-TV in the Pittsburgh area. The second of the two scheduled Senate debates is Friday in Pittsburgh.
With the race so tight, the mantra for both candidates will be: Don't screw up.
"[Debates] don't draw large audiences usually and therefore they're not going to be able to sway enormous sectors of the electorate," said Muhlenberg College political science professor Christopher Borick, "unless somebody makes a statement that is a major gaffe."
But the debates will showcase two candidates who disagree on core national policy -- from taxes to Social Security to health care to climate change. Each has tried to paint the other as an extremist.
Mr. Toomey is a former three-term congressman from the Allentown area who used to run the conservative Club for Growth, a group that attempted to purge the GOP of moderates. While in Congress, he took a hard line on fiscal issues, and his stances on deregulating the financial industry -- where he used to work as a trader -- have taken strident criticism from Mr. Sestak.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, vice presidential candidate and galvanizer of the Republican base, endorsed Mr. Toomey on Tuesday on her Facebook page, along with six other Senate candidates, for his opposition to a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. The endorsement could help mobilize conservatives for Mr. Toomey, while also advancing the Democratic argument against him.
"Governor Palin is right that the cap-and-trade energy tax would be devastating to jobs and the economy in manufacturing states like Pennsylvania," Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik wrote in an e-mail. "We've been saying that throughout the campaign."
Mr. Sestak, meanwhile, has been a consistent backer of the agenda of Mr. Obama, which has proven unpopular in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, while advocating that he go even further: He pushed for a "public option" in the health care bill and said the stimulus should have been bigger.
Philadelphia-based Democratic media strategist Larry Ceisler said Mr. Toomey will try his best to rope Mr. Sestak in with Mr. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while Mr. Sestak will compare Mr. Toomey with former Sen. Rick Santorum and Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell -- both of whom are viewed as right wing.
"This is not personality driven," Mr. Ceisler said. "This is about sharp distinctions on substantive issues. You're not going to be seeing any fireworks ... This is what a debate should be."
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980.