Casey, Smith cordial in only debate

Senate candidates spar over spending, health care, government regulation


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PHILADELPHIA -- Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Republican challenger Tom Smith sparred over federal spending, health care reform and government regulation Friday during their only debate.

Mr. Casey repeatedly jabbed at Mr. Smith for being a too-conservative tea partyer who supports a radical agenda. Mr. Smith attacked the incumbent, saying he isn't the independent voice he claims to be but an ineffective lawmaker whose votes are too closely tied to President Barack Obama's agenda.

Mostly, though, the debate was a cordial back-and-forth over policy.

WPVI-Philadelphia recorded the debate Friday and will air it at 1 p.m. Sunday and make it available to other stations between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon. WTAE and cable's PCN plan to air it at 5 p.m. Sunday.

"The Affordable Care Act is the biggest power grab in history," Mr. Smith, who supports repeal, said during one exchange. "What do I have against the Affordable Care Act? Do you really want to turn over one-sixth of the economy in this country to bureaucrats like the ones that run the IRS and the post office?"

Mr. Smith said the Affordable Care Act imposes 22 new taxes.

"That's not true," Mr. Casey interrupted.

"So, anyhow," Mr. Smith said after an awkward four seconds of silence. "The Affordable Care Act is dragging down this economy."

Casey campaign manager Larry Smar later said that Mr. Smith was referring to penalties for businesses that don't provide health insurance, not taxes.

Mr. Casey said he doesn't want the country to return to a time when pre-existing medical conditions weren't covered and when young adults couldn't be covered on parents' medical plans.

"The worst thing we could do on health care is to either put our head in the sand and do nothing, which is what repeal means, or to have a big partisan fight over it," Mr. Casey said. "We should bring people together to get this right."

Mr. Smith said his opponent's policies would increase the country's debt.

He said his own experience as a businessman qualifies him for the Senate.

"I have a good sense of what it takes to grow the economy. I have a really good sense of the enormous amount of regulation that is put on by the federal government [and] the state government," he said. "We need reasonable regulations on businesses -- Wall Street also -- but most businesses and people are just getting inundated by regulations."

Mr. Casey characterized Mr. Smith as an ideologue who would increase partisanship in Washington rather than help forge needed compromise.

Mr. Smith stumbled a few times during the debate, twice calling moderator Jim Gardner "Larry" and, at another point, needing to hear a question about banking reform three times before saying government shouldn't bail out financial institutions.

Mr. Casey, in contrast, said the country can't afford to let banks default. He said tea party policies like Mr. Smith's would ruin the economy and lead to job losses. He said he supports increased banking regulation.

Mr. Smith has said that excessive government regulation hurts businesses and job creation.

Both believe in infrastructure investment. Mr. Casey said Congress should have provided more investment through stimulus legislation. Mr. Smith said he would fund it through transfers from other departments, such as energy. During other lines of questioning, Mr. Smith said he would move to eliminate the Education Department and reduce the size of the Commerce Department.

Mr. Gardner pressed Mr. Casey to provide his plan to avoid the impending fiscal cliff after the senator offered a vague explanation of a need for a balance between cutting and taxing.

"I've already voted for tax cuts in the federal budget. I'll vote for more, but I'm not going to support a plan that's reckless in the way we cut spending," Mr. Casey had said.

Replied Mr. Gardner: "I appreciate your outlook and vision but I asked you if you had written a plan."

Mr. Casey said no but that his Senate votes indicate what his priorities are: protecting the middle class from tax increases.

"I don't think we want 535 members of Congress having their own written plan, but that doesn't mean we can't have a good exchange," he said.

Mr. Smith, meanwhile, said his own plan calls for reducing spending, eliminating unspecified tax loopholes and privatizing Medicare and Medicaid.

"This fiscal cliff is serious and there's no doubt about it. The bottom line is we've gotten here because of [inaction] in the past," he said.

The debate covered a breadth of issues important to voters, said Olivia Thorne, president of the League of Women Voters.

"You really got a good picture of what each candidate had to say," she said. "You absolutely need to have a debate to really talk about more and [get beyond] messages in negative campaign ads"

Outside the studio gate a handful of activists held "Tom Smith" campaign signs while about an equal number waved signs in support of Mr. Casey.

The race has grown tighter as Mr. Smith, who had been largely unknown, has poured more of his own money into the race in order to get his message of fiscal responsibility on televisions statewide. The campaign has raised $20.3 million so far to Mr. Casey's $12.7 million.

Nearly $17 million of that is Mr. Smith's own money.

Mr. Casey, 52, of Scranton is seeking his second term in the Senate.

He was previously state treasurer and state auditor general.

Mr. Smith, 64, of Armstrong County is a farmer and businessman who has operated coal mines, car washes, a school bus company and a trucking company.

Third-party candidate Rayburn Smith, a Clarion County Libertarian, did not participate.

Election Day is Nov. 6.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-703-996-9292. Staff writer Rob Owen contributed.


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