Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak have very little in common, except for two core beliefs: They both think Pennsylvania's Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter is doing a bad job in the Senate, and they would both like to take his place.
The two men held a joint town hall in Allentown, Pa., on Wednesday night that had the feel of an election-year debate, complete with instant fact-check e-mail blasts from the candidates' war rooms, campaign signs taped to the walls, and cheering supporters and news trucks lining the road outside. They fielded 90 minutes' worth of questions from emotional, but respectful, audience members, who asked about revamping the civil justice system, health care rationing and the prospect of federal funding for abortion, among other topics.
Toomey is a strong fiscal conservative, who recently served as president of the anti-tax Club for Growth. He is tall, rigid and likes to pepper his answers with statistics and study results. Toomey nearly toppled Specter in a hard-fought 2004 primary, and he decided to make another run after the five-term incumbent supported the federal stimulus package. Toomey frames President Obama's health care initiative as the latest in a long train of liberal abuses.
"Along comes this huge government intrusion in health care, and a lot of Americans are saying, 'Wait a minute. This is starting to look almost like a different country,' " Toomey told the crowd Wednesday.
Toomey is especially wary of a so-called public option, which would establish government-run insurance. He says it would drive private insurers out of business and lead to a single-payer system.
Sestak is worried about reports Obama may be backing away from the idea. He says the public option would create immediate competition for insurance giants, and says he would have a difficult time supporting a bill without it.
"Without the public health care plan option, there isn't that heavy ability to effect better, fairer competition," he told the audience. "And what I described here today, across America, 90 percent of all the markets are noncompetitive — for pricing purposes — markets."
Sestak is a former Navy admiral, a fact he brings up often. Answering questions at the town hall, his voice had a trace of that Ronald Reagan wisp, mixed with Bill Clinton's patented thumb point and pain-feeling empathetic look. The suburban Philadelphia congressman is making a dogged attempt at unseating Specter in the primary, despite near-universal support for the incumbent from the Democratic establishment. Specter makes it a point of pride to visit all 67 Pennsylvania counties each year, so Sestak did the same in a matter of weeks.
His efforts are showing some signs of progress. Although Specter has been in the Senate since 1981 and can tout the endorsement of Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, nearly half of Democrats are unconvinced. Forty-six percent of respondents are undecided, according to a poll released Thursday. Toomey's campaign has been pleased with recent numbers, too: That same poll has Toomey down 8 points to Specter, but another survey gave him a narrow lead.
Neither candidate referenced their shared rival during the town hall meeting, but Toomey was quick to needle Specter afterward.
"You know, we came here to have a substantive discussion about policy, and we did," he said. "It's hard to have that with Arlen Specter, because he systematically tries to be on both sides of every issue. So it's much harder to get into the substance of a tough, important issue like health care."
In contrast, Toomey had high praise for Sestak. The two even headed to an Allentown bar after the event for their own little "beer summit." The shared stages and cordial atmosphere may quickly go away, though, if they find themselves facing each other next fall.