Santorum, Casey go toe-to-toe in debate

Battle over Iraq, immigration, Social Security, border protection

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By Bill Toland
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The two candidates interrupted each other, talked over each other, ignored time limits, ignored the moderator and generally stopped just short of playground name-calling and shin-kicking.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
During yesterday's debate, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and Democratic challenger Bob Casey face off at KDKA-TV studios.
Audio: U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. engage in a spirited exchange as moderator and KDKA anchor Ken Rice works to maintain control of the debate.
Click arrow icon to launch audio and additional pictures.

More audio

How the U.S. should focus on the broader war against terrorism

The candidates summarize their positions in closing remarks

The complete debate, can be heard in this 23MB download


To say that KDKA moderator Ken Rice lost control of yesterday's debate between U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and state Treasurer Bob Casey would be fallacious, because it suggests that he ever had control to begin with.

In short: bad manners.

But great political theater.

In this debate, sponsored jointly by KDKA and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the issues took a back seat to the candidates' sparring and demeanor. Mr. Santorum, a Republican, frequently challenged his Democratic foe to "look in the camera" and tell Pennsylvania the truth. After many of Mr. Casey's responses to panelists' queries, Mr. Santorum rolled his eyes and said: "You will not get this man to answer the question."

Mr. Casey, meanwhile, repeatedly alluded to the incumbent's poor poll numbers.

"Hey Rick, I know things are tough," he said. "Don't be a desperate campaigner."

And that was just the first 10 minutes. Over the course of the hour, the candidates battled on the Iraq war, border security and amnesty for undocumented immigrants, Social Security, pay raises and other issues.

Rare was the question that elicited a few minutes of civility. The close-quarters sparring undoubtedly added color to the affair, but the candidates appeared less statesmanlike than either Gov. Ed Rendell or challenger Lynn Swann, who debated each other in Pittsburgh last week.

Off the bat, Mr. Rice asked Mr. Santorum a question that has dogged him for months -- why did he allow Penn Hills School District to foot the bill for his children to attend a Pennsylvania online cyber school, when he and his family primarily live in Virginia? (A public school district, by state law, must pick up the tab for students living within the district and attending an Internet-based school.)

"I've paid $100,000 in state and local taxes," Mr. Santorum said, implying that he's entitled to the same benefits that other Pennsylvania taxpayers get, even if his children lay their heads to rest in a different state.

"This issue is as much about hypocrisy as it is about residency," Mr. Casey said, referring to Mr. Santorum's 16-year-old attack on former U.S. Rep. Doug Walgren, whom Mr. Santorum pilloried for living in Virginia instead of Pennsylvania.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum embraces his wife, Karen, after a debate with Democratic challenger Bob Casey, second from left, who shakes hands with panelists.

Both candidates were evasive to varying degrees, but Mr. Casey more so. That was partly because, at least twice, Mr. Santorum asked questions designed to trip him up -- first, he wanted to know if Mr. Casey remembered the name of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami; second, he asked Mr. Casey if he knew precisely what percentage of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System's assets is invested in companies that are notorious for outsourcing jobs (he said the answer was 25 percent).

Mr. Santorum, as a result, appeared to have a better grasp of the issues, at least those ones that were raised yesterday. Mr. Casey often relied on familiar talking points, reminding viewers that Mr. Santorum votes with President Bush about 98 percent of the time, and that Mr. Santorum wanted to "privatize" Social Security by allowing younger workers to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes into stocks.

"I don't know how you can say so many words and say nothing," Mr. Santorum said, mocking the catchphrases that are familiar not only to Mr. Casey but to all political challengers. "Brand new direction. Different course. It's just, you know, talking point after talking point."

But Mr. Santorum had his talking points, too. Several times, he said Mr. Casey doesn't take his job as state treasurer seriously, viewing it as a stepping stone to higher office. He also said Mr. Casey is coasting on his father's name, referring to the late Robert P. Casey, former governor of Pennsylvania.

If he seemed more informed at times, Mr. Santorum also seemed far more agitated, gesturing aggressively and trampling Mr. Casey's remarks more often than Mr. Casey returned the favor. He opened the debate wearing a smile, but quickly the smile became a frustrated scowl. Mr. Casey appeared more bemused than he did frustrated, except for a moment near the end of the debate, when he mustered his best teacher voice and cut off Mr. Santorum:

"Stop talking Rick, I've got a point to make."

Mr. Santorum seemed surprised, but recovered nicely: "It would be the first one today."

On Iraq, the candidates debated the merits of the recently publicized National Intelligence Estimate, which suggested that the invasion of Iraq is "shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives." Mr. Santorum was asked if the Iraq invasion made the Middle East more dangerous than before.

"Compared to what? Compared to had we done nothing? That's a classic Monday morning quarterback," Mr. Santorum said. The coupled U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have helped, in his assessment, in reducing the global terror threat posed by al-Qaida and the version of Islam that breeds radical Sunnis.

"We haven't been attacked in five years," he said, speaking of the American homeland and not the 2,800 American troops who have died since the invasion.

"I think the National Intelligence Estimate tells a good part of the story," Mr. Casey replied. "That said very clearly that the war in Iraq has made it much tougher to take on the war against terrorism around the world. There's no question about that. Sen. Santorum just said that because of what happened in Iraq, we reduced the threat of terrorism -- that's not the truth. The National Intelligence Estimate contradicts what he just said."

The candidates' Iraq responses soon wandered into a parsing of the differences among special forces, special operations forces, and the U.S. Army Special Forces, informally known as the Green Berets. Mr. Rice, the moderator, had heard enough. "You're killing our timekeeper," he said, "and you're just trashing your own rules."

In his closing statement, Mr. Santorum dialed down the bullying while acknowledging it at the same time.

"You can see from this debate -- I'm a passionate guy," he said. "I'm tough. I'm a fighter. But you know what? I'm an Italian kid from a steel town. What do you expect from me? ... I wasn't born into a family that had a great name."

He also touted his role in funding local VA hospitals, and keeping the Air Force Reserve's 911th Military Airlift Wing open in Pittsburgh, when it had been facing closure.

Mr. Casey wrapped up by acknowledging that this is "a very, very important Senate race for the country," something echoed by Democrats and Republicans across the United States, as well as political observers who view Pennsylvania's premier race as a bellwether for the nation.

"We can stay on the road that we've been on the last couple of years, the road of deficit and debt ... There's a very clear choice in this campaign."


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


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