Amid a friendly union audience, Sen. Bob Casey assailed his challenger on trade issues Wednesday, charging that Republican Tom Smith's support for free trade would jeopardize Pennsylvania jobs.
Mr. Casey emphasized his opposition to trade deals supported by administrations of both parties as he contended that he would be a better sentinel against what he characterized as unfair competition abroad.
The Democrat, locked in a surprisingly close battle with Mr. Smith, reminded about 30 supporters gathered in the lobby of USW headquarters that he had voted against trade agreement with Panama, Colombia and South Korea despite their support from the Obama administration.
"We have a big difference on the issue of trade,'' Mr. Casey said, noting his long-standing skepticism on trade accords, extending to his criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement before he came to the Senate.
Trade issues have not played a major part of Mr. Smith's campaign but in candidate forums and questionnaires, he has indicated his general support for free trade.
Mr. Casey also reminded an audience dominated by USW staff members that he had also been a persistent critic of Chinese trade practices. He charged that Beijing has kept down the value of its currency to make its exports more competitive. He also repeated his criticisms of China for failing to protect the intellectual property of American firms.
"They're stealing our intellectual property,'' he said. "We've got to start taking action so when the Chinese engage in these practices, there are consequences.''
Mr. Smith's spokeswoman, Megan Piwowar, dismissed the incumbent's criticism.
"Bob Casey supports the institution of tariffs that would trigger a trade war and deny American manufacturers access to the world's second-largest market -- an approach that has been tried and has failed miserably,'' Ms. Piwowar said, referring to legislation supported by Mr. Casey that would penalize China for currency manipulation. "Tom Smith would enact pro-growth reforms like simplifying the tax code and rolling back oppressive regulations so American companies can compete fairly and prosper in the global economy."
Mr. Casey spoke in the closing weeks of a contest that has become unexpectedly close after months in which he had enjoyed a seemingly daunting lead against the conservative businessman. Big spending by the wealthy Republican helped narrow the competition starting in late September, so that a contest that looked like a runaway has closed to a single-digit margin, according to the polling consensus.
So far, Mr. Smith has outspent Mr. Casey on the airwaves but that imbalance is expected to close in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 contest.
Mr. Smith enjoyed an cash-on-hand advantage over the incumbent at the end of the last reporting period, roughly $7 million to $5 million, but Mr. Casey has had some 11th hour assistance from MajorityPAC, a Democratic superPAC. In a new ad, the third-party group attacks Mr. Smith's policies as a threat to education.
In a statement, Ms. Piwowar attacked the outside spending.
"This is further evidence of Bob Casey's sputtering campaign and crumbling support,'' she said. "Tom Smith, whose wife taught in public schools for 38 years, would fight to return tax dollars to the classroom, by reducing the bloated federal bureaucracy and unfunded mandates that Casey continues to support."
Politics editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.