- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The three Democrats running for a chance to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall election returned took a more congenial approach as they answered questions from an audience of college students on the campus of Penn State University on Saturday night.

The hour-long debate between John Fetterman, Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak at WPSU in State College gave the candidates opportunities to answer questions on issues including how to improve education in low-income communities, how to close the wealth gap and whether putting up trade barriers to protect domestic workers is worth the long-term cost.

It was the second debate in a week to be broadcast live on TV, as the closely watched campaign speeds toward the April 26 primary election, the candidates vie for undecided voters and millions of dollars in TV ads pour into the race.

The candidates offered stances in line with the Democratic party on the issues - Toomey’s campaign called it a “contest to see which Democratic candidate could kowtow most to the extreme liberal agenda” - and they largely stayed away from the attacks and rebuttals that had characterized a Tuesday night debate in Pittsburgh.

On raising the minimum wage, Fetterman said the country should go immediately to a $15 an hour minimum wage, while Sestak suggested that it should be done in steps to protect against job losses.

Sestak also said fair trade deals are possible if done right - for instance, intellectual property must be protected, he said - but McGinty and Fetterman were more resolute in their rejection of trade deals. McGinty, who also supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, said the nation needs to put its energy into improving its own workers and infrastructure.

McGinty, who as a member of the Clinton administration in 1994 defended the then-newly signed North American Free Trade Agreement, said “for 30-some years, we’ve been kind of throwing this Hail Mary pass, just one more trade deal, one more trade deal, finally we’ll get equal treatment and be able to access markets and be able to grow our economy. But what we’ve seen is this parallel. Trade agreements, loss of manufacturing, a loss of the middle class in this country. So I think we need to try something different.”

Fetterman, the youngest of the candidates at 46, brought out laughter at regular intervals from the student audience. At one point, asked why he’s the best candidate of the three to beat Toomey, the hulking Fetterman said, “I’ve got about 9 inches and 150 pounds on him for starters.”

Students from colleges and universities around Pennsylvania helped ask the questions.

Unseating Toomey is seen as crucial to the Democrats’ chances of retaking control of the Senate, and party leaders are putting their clout and millions of dollars on the line to help McGinty win the primary. McGinty’s backers include President Barack Obama, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Gov. Tom Wolf and the AFL-CIO.

Sestak is leading the polls, and he seems to relish his icy relationship with party leaders, saying he is independent of their control and answerable only to people. The former Navy vice admiral and two-term congressman from suburban Philadelphia is seeking a rematch against the first-term Toomey after losing to him in 2010.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Emily’s List and Service Employees International Union are together committing more than $2.5 million so far to TV ads in the race to help McGinty. She has held high-level posts in the state and federal governments over the past 25 years, much of it as a top environmental adviser to former President Bill Clinton and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Meanwhile, Sestak - who had lifetime voting records in Congress of over 90 percent with the AFL-CIO and Americans for Democratic Action - is being aided by $730,000 worth of TV ads by a new political action committee named Accountable Leadership. It can accept unlimited cash donations and has yet to reveal its donors.

Total spending in the Democratic primary campaign will likely eclipse $9 million.

Fetterman, the third-term mayor of tiny, impoverished Braddock, near Pittsburgh, is making his first statewide run. He has cast himself as the most progressive and authentic candidate, citing his day-to-day efforts to quell gun violence and bring housing, food and education to his impoverished town.

The forum was sponsored by Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU. It was shown live on public television stations around much of Pennsylvania.

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