Santorum on the attack in final debate with Casey

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PHILADELPHIA -- Sen. Rick Santorum attempted to seize the offensive against Democrat Bob Casey in their final debate last night, repeatedly accusing the challenger of evading questions, while Mr. Casey renewed his portrayal of the incumbent as a rubber stamp for the Bush administration.

Tom Mihalek, Associated Press
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, right, and state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. in their final debate last night.
Click photo for larger image.

While the Republican pursued a series of sharp attacks, the overall tone of the session was less heated than their previous televised encounter last week in Pittsburgh.

If there was little new ground in the session at the national Constitution Center it was not surprising since it was the third meeting between the pair in less than a week and the second of the day. Ten hours earlier, they had exchanged charges in a radio debate staged just blocks away in another studio.

The evening's debate, which was rebroadcast on the Pennsylvania Cable network, opened with a question on the candidates' views on Korea. Both said, in essence, that no options should be off the table in countering Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Mr. Casey criticized the Bush administration's record and said its foreign policy had weakened the nation's non-military options.

"All of those levers of power have been degraded by this administration,'' he said of possible diplomatic and economic steps against North Korea.

Mr. Santorum said he was against direct talks with North Korea, arguing that such an approach had failed during the Clinton administration.

He also claimed that Mr. Casey had opposed some potential military options, including missile defense and bunker-busting bombs.

Mr. Casey, who favors research on a missile defense, said, "That's more of the fiction that Rick Santorum has been spreading. What the senator said isn't true."

The exchanges came as the Santorum campaign released fund-raising figures showing that the incumbent's once vast fund-raising advantage had largely dissipated.

The new financial parity made the stakes for the debate that much greater for Mr. Santorum. Following one question after another he insisted that Mr. Casey has not answered the panel's questions.

On Iraq, both candidates resisted the idea of direct talks with insurgents.

Mr. Casey said it was too soon for such talks while Mr. Santorum was more adamant against them. Mr. Casey accused the Republican of being a defender of the status quo on the war, contrasting what he characterized as the Santorum position with the increasing questioning of current strategy by some other senior Republicans.

Mr. Santorum rejected that charge, maintaining that he had goaded the administration into seeking the review now headed by former Secretary of State James Baker. Asserting his independence, he also pointed to his clashes with the president and the State Department on his call for a tougher line against Iran.

Mr. Casey accused Mr. Santorum and the administration of dragging their feet on energy independence. Mr. Santorum called himself a proponent of alternative fuels while contending that Mr. Casey's views, including endorsement of tighter fuel standards, would devastate the economy of Western Pennsylvania.

Casey rebutted the attack, claiming that it embodied, "the old false choice between the economy or the environment.''

Earlier in the day, the tone of the "Breakfast With the Candidates'' conversation in KYW Radio's Independence Square studios was decidedly more civil than their encounter last week in Pittsburgh. Mr. Santorum was at turns stern and caustic in his criticisms of the Democrat, who projected weary exasperation at the Republican's barbs.

In response to the first question from one of the KYW panelists, Mr. Santorum said he had no second thoughts about his decision to visit the family of Terri Schiavo, the late Florida woman whose feeding tube was disconnected after a legal battle in which Congress stepped in to give special jurisdiction to the federal courts in an issue that had been under a state review.

"I went there to pray with the family ... and I'm not ashamed of having done that," Mr. Santorum said, noting that Ms. Schiavo's parents were his Pennsylvania constituents.

Mr. Casey, who like Mr. Santorum, is a pro-life Roman Catholic, repeated his position that he would have "erred on the side of life," in the case. But, repeating his criticism of the Santorum visit, he said, "The last thing that site needed was a politician from Washington."

The candidates also repeated th eir difference on the Plan B morning-after pill. Mr. Santorum restated his opposition to over-the-counter sales of the pill, maintaining that in some circumstances it was tantamount to an abortion.

Emphasizing each syllable, Mr. Casey insisted that, on the contrary, the pill was "con-tra-cep- tion," and he said that the scientific consensus supported that view.

Mr. Santorum pressed the Democrat to document that claim and said, "I don't know any organization that says this is not [tantamount to abortion] at times," Mr. Santorum said.

"Are you a scientist, too?'' Mr. Casey shot back, although he acknowledged that he could not immediately cite a specific source for his conclusion.

It was one of several moments when Mr. Santorum, as he had in Pittsburgh, tried to turn the debate into a snap quiz.

At another point, he turned to Mr. Casey and asked him how far Chinese oil rigs were from U.S. shores.

"Tell us, Rick. You know everything,'' Mr. Casey replied.

In response to another question, Mr. Casey said that while he opposed gay marriage, he also opposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, maintaining that the proposal was a political ploy designed to divide voters.

Mr. Santorum defended a controversial passage in his book, "It Takes a Family,'' in which he suggested that a second income was not necessary for many families.

"Nobody reads the comments before and after the line they quote," Santorum said. "I was referring to the fact that wealthy, or upper income, families have an opportunity to sacrifice what I call 'stuff' in the book to spend more time with their families. My wife is a nurse and an attorney, my mom was a full-time working mom. I have absolutely nothing against working women."

The radio debate was broadcast on KYW radio in Philadelphia and KDKA radio in Pittsburgh.

Last night's televised debate, the last of the campaign under current plans, was broadcast from the National Constitution Center and broadcast live locally. The Pennsylvania Cable Network rebroadcast it at 8 p.m.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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