PHILADELPHIA -- Even though they disagree on everything, Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak found some common ground Wednesday night in the first U.S. Senate debate: Both agree the other guy is an extremist.
The applicants to fill Arlen Specter's seat presented their sharply contrasting policy stances in a feisty matchup at the National Constitution Center as polling shows the race becoming a dead heat -- with a couple public polls giving Democrat Sestak a slight lead for the first time.
In a center aisle state, each candidate is seeking to portray the other as a resident of his party's wing. Mr. Sestak invoked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell -- whose campaign advertising has infiltrated the neighboring Philadelphia media market -- when describing Mr. Toomey.
The Republican, meanwhile, said Mr. Sestak "aligned himself with that very small extreme element of the House," though he notably didn't mention House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- the GOP's chosen boogeyman of 2010 -- at all during the debate.
Both men appeared poised -- Mr. Sestak much more so than in his primary debate with Mr. Specter -- and stuck to their talking points without notable gaffes.
The sharpest exchange came on Social Security policy. Mr. Sestak accused Mr. Toomey of wanting to gamble the program on the market, where if "the stock market goes down, seniors lose."
Mr. Toomey shot back, "Joe's demagoguery knows no limits." He said his plan would merely give younger workers the option to invest in a highly diversified mutual fund. (Mr. Sestak countered that contributions from younger workers are what support payments to today's seniors.) Mr. Toomey consistently hammered Mr. Sestak on spending and turned his common Wall Street attack line on its head.
"If you've watched any TV and see any of Joe's ads, you know I worked on Wall Street," Mr. Toomey said.
"One of the things I learned then is that's one of the last places taxpayers should bail out."
The former restaurant owner derided Mr. Sestak's support for the rescues of the financial and auto industries as the work of an economic neophyte.
"I think that happens sometimes with people who have no experience in business who don't realize this is a complete misallocation of resources and it's bad for the American people," Mr. Toomey said.
Mr. Sestak, a former Navy admiral, invoked a naval metaphor to describe his support for the bailouts.
"We'd been torpedoed; the ship was sinking; we had to caulk the holes," he said. "Is it perfect? No, but sometimes you have to take care of other people's messes and just clean them up."
Much of the campaign has focused on fiscal issues, but the four-person panel's questions drew the candidates into social battlegrounds.
Both men are Roman Catholic but have differing views on abortion. Mr. Toomey said he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but he would judge judicial nominees by their experience and not a litmus test. He pointed to his support last year for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as an example. Mr. Sestak said "those life decisions should be made within the family. I don't believe the government should intervene."
Mr. Toomey accused Mr. Sestak of supporting taxpayer-funded abortions -- stemming from the health care bill, which anti-abortion groups say indirectly provides funding for abortions even though it's legally prohibited. After Mr. Sestak denied the charge, Mr. Toomey interrupted him to say, "You're being dishonest, Joe, and I'm calling you out on that."
Mr. Sestak said he respects the Second Amendment but is in favor of banning assault weapons, quoting a past statement from Mr. Toomey saying "my idea of gun control is a steady aim" to press the extremist point. Mr. Toomey said Mr. Sestak "doesn't respect the right of law-abiding citizens on firearms." Mr. Toomey noted his endorsements from the state troopers association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Panelist George Stephanopoulos, of ABC News, injected Ms. Palin into the debate with the second question of the night, noting that she endorsed Mr. Toomey on her Facebook page.
Mr. Toomey said, "I welcome any endorsement from high-profile candidates and figures, and folks I meet every day." But he never addressed Mr. Stephanopoulos' question of whether Ms. Palin was qualified to be president.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Mr. Sestak noted that Mr. Toomey didn't even say Ms. Palin's name and brought up the Republican's work after he left Congress for the conservative Club for Growth -- an organization that helped push moderates out of the Republican Party.
And Mr. Sestak made sure to get the night's most popular word in there.
"That's the extreme we can't have in the Senate," he said.
Both candidates are to debate again Friday in Pittsburgh.
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.