DuBOIS, Pa. | They’re both Catholic, middle-aged, Harvard-educated white men - but the similarities end there between the two candidates running for Arlen Specter’s U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
Former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey is a conservative Republican and one-time Wall Street derivatives trader who chased Mr. Specter from the GOP. On the stump, he’s politically polished and has a knack for sticking to the script.
He’s taking on Rep. Joe Sestak, a liberal Democrat and retired three-star Navy admiral who ended Mr. Specter’s political career by defeating him in a hard-fought primary. On the stump, Mr. Sestak can throw out so many stats, personal stories and ideas that it he can leave a person’s head spinning.
Despite their glaring differences, the path to victory for both men hinges in large part on the same voters: undecided independents.
“Democrats have an enormous registrant advantage that benefits them at the polls, but there is a great fear in terms of turnout among the state’s Democratic rank and file. So for Democrats to win, there is a need to tap into the independent or independent-minded voters,” said Christopher Borick, an associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“The same thing goes for Republicans. The Republican-energized base on its own might not be enough to pull off statewide races. So what needs to happen is they have to have that crossover appeal to those middle-of-the-road voters,” he said.
Mr. Toomey and Mr. Sestak have consolidated their political bases and are fighting over the unaffiliated voters and moderate-minded members of their parties.
But one recent poll that found that 25 percent of likely Pennsylvania voters are undecided.
Mr. Toomey appears to have the upper hand in riding the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that has played out across the country. He holds a 6.5-percentage-point lead in RealClearPolitics’ average of polls.
Mr. Sestak, though, tried to steal some of the independent magic last week as he touted his support from party crossers.
“I’m a Republican, and I support Joe Sestak for Senate,” said Charles A. “Tony” McGeorge, a former president of Valley Forge Military Academy & College.
Mr. McGeorge’s remarks set the stage for maverick former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and Vietnam War veteran, who had traveled there to break with his party once again in endorsing the Democrat.
Standing before Philadelphia’s Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Mr. Hagel called Mr. Sestak “exactly the kind of leader America needs at this time in our history.”
Mr. Sestak, 58, returned the compliment, saying he admired Mr. Hagel more than anyone else with whom he served in Congress, and then suggested he himself was cast from the same independent mold. “I think there’s this ability to be independent, to work with dissent, the difference of ideas, and reach across the aisle, to see if you cannot not work together,” Mr. Sestak said.
With the unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent nationally and at 9.3 percent in Pennsylvania, Mr. Sestak and some of his fellow Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the White House and their party.
“It’s pretty obvious that I will stand up to the party anytime when they are wrong,” he said.
To drive home the point, Mr. Sestak talked about how he ran against the wishes of the party leaders in challenging Mr. Specter and that he has voiced opposition to the direction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But a bright yellow sign in the crowd suggested Mr. Sestak’s voting record could undercut that message in the November election. “97 Percent Voting with Pelosi is Independent?” it read.
The following day, Mr. Sestak pulled his hybrid car up to a church on a North Philadelphia street corner that was once known as “Crack Lane” and “Cocaine Alley.” It was the first stop on a “Jobs and Opportunities” tour, and Mr. Sestak was greeted by a mostly black crowd and a few reporters in a tight room with barred windows and bulging-out walls.
Mr. Sestak called community leaders there to discuss a report showing that only 28 percent of the city’s black males earn high school diplomas.
But the discussion began with Mr. Toomey - namely, his support for President George W. Bush’s failed push to “privatize” Social Security.
Mr. Sestak accused the Republican of “misleading people on his position.”
Mr. Toomey said Mr. Sestak has distorted his record.
“He said he has never talked about or favored privatization of Social Security, but it is in his book, and he has advocated for and voted for taking Social Security and leaving it to Wall Street,” Mr. Sestak said. “He should be straight with voters because now we want accountability for stances of issues.”
He called for more accountability in city schools, including in early education, teacher training and vocational training programs. Members of the crowd nodded their heads.
“We keep the same people in office, and nothing has changed,” one man said. The city’s public education system has “become one of the biggest hustles in America,” another said, eliciting sounds of agreement for the 20 or so people in attendance.
Afterward, Mr. Sestak said the federal government can help improve the city schools and that “we have not had the right kind of accountability to measure our progress.”
“What I intend to do in the Senate is get the right kind of measures for the public money that is being poured in. And that means changing the status quo. If anybody thinks the way we are doing it is working, they’re wrong.”
Mr. Sestak isn’t the only one campaigning against the status quo, though with his party controlling all the reins of government, he’s having a tougher time making the pitch than Mr. Toomey.
“The campaign is going really, really well,” Mr. Toomey told a crowd of about 50 people at the DuBois Diner on Thursday. “I’d like to take full credit for where the campaign is, but I have to admit I think Barack Obama and Joe Sestak deserve as much credit as I do.”
It was a successful joke, and people smiled and laughed.
Less than 24 hours after Mr. Sestak’s education event, Mr. Toomey was at this 1950s-style diner in Clearfield County, shaking hands and chomping on a hamburger as he neared the end of a four-day “More Jobs, Less Government” tour.
His laundry list of beefs with the Democratic agenda have become familiar to conservative audiences - federal stimulus, health care reform, and “cap-and-trade” environmental legislation that passed the House with Mr. Sestak’s support. He warned that the “most liberal wing of the Democratic Party” is trying to “turn America into a European-style welfare state.”
The polished politician, always on message, said that in a recent profile on Mr. Sestak, the only disagreement the Democrat could find with his party is that the $814 billion economic stimulus legislation was too small.
“What they are doing is pretty dangerous. I think the policies we’re seeing come out of Washington are increasingly becoming the reason that we are not having the kind of economic recovery and job creation that we could be having and should be having,” Mr. Toomey said.
He appeared confident. Perhaps it was because a Franklin & Marshall College poll released earlier that day showed him 9 percentage points ahead of Mr. Sestak.
“I know exactly what an entrepreneur goes through when deciding whether or not to launch a business and where to put it and what kind of investments to make,” he said, alluding to the time he spent running a family restaurant with his brothers. “I have been there, and I have done all that. Joe Sestak has never spent a day in the private sector, and I wonder sometimes whether that is the reason he is supporting so many policies that are doing so much damage.”
He closed his comments with a parting shot at Democrats and a quote from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“He said about all us of, ‘You know, you can always count on Americans to get it right, after they exhausted every other possible option,’ ” he said. “So, I look at this Obama-Pelosi-Sestak agenda as the process of exhausting the other options.”
“This fall, we are going to get it right,” he said.