Casey, Smith debate more of the same
PHILADELPHIA — The candidates for U.S. Senate traded jabs over federal spending, benefits and health care on Friday but largely stuck to campaign scripts during their only debate before the Nov. 6 election.
Republican Tom Smith of Armstrong County accused Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of voting “more than 90 percent of the time” with President Obama, and said he knows better than the Scranton Democrat how to improve the economy.
“I'm not a career politician. I'm a businessman who wants to go to Washington,” said Smith, 65, of Plumcreek.
Casey, 52, said he deserves a second term because he is an independent voice for the state's voters who fights for the middle class. Casey said Smith, a Tea Party adherent, would not work as well as he does to seek compromise between Democrats and Republicans on issues such as last year's fight over raising the debt limit to avoid a default.
“You had the Tea Party forcing the country to go to the edge of the cliff and almost default on our obligations to pay off our bills,” Casey said. “He can talk all he wants about how we pay our bills, but if we're going to allow Tea Party ideology to govern Washington, we're going to be in worse shape.”
The cordial, hourlong debate broke little ground from the candidates' stump speeches, even though questioners from WPVI-TV tried to elicit direct answers. The Philadelphia station will air the debate on Sunday. Libertarian candidate Rayburn Douglas Smith, 65, of Clarion County did not debate.
The race that was “on nobody's radar” a few months ago has tightened, said W. Wesley McDonald, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College.
“When Casey and Obama pulled out of Pennsylvania, feeling it was in the bag, it left an opening for Smith with a lot of radio and TV ads he was able to purchase,” McDonald said. Smith outspent Casey by a nearly 3-1 margin in the third quarter.
A Rasmussen Reports poll of 500 likely voters, released Friday, showed Casey with 46 percent of the vote and Smith with 45 percent. The poll had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points. RealClearPolitics.com showed Casey leading by an average of 6.5 percentage points.
The candidates for weeks have feuded over the airwaves. Casey's ads refer to “Tea Party Tom Smith,” and Smith's ads call Casey “Senator Zero” because he hasn't drafted a bill that became law.
Their debate pitted a political novice against a politician with more than a half-dozen debates under his belt. From its outset, Smith criticized Casey for supporting Obamacare.
“The Affordable Care Act is the biggest power grab in history,” Smith said, noting he wants to repeal it. Obama's health care law amounts to turning one-sixth of the economy over to bureaucrats and imposes 22 taxes, Smith said.
“That's not true,” said Casey. “We can't put our heads in the sand and do nothing, which is what repeal means.”
Smith, a millionaire who largely financed his campaign, owned a coal mining company that he sold two years ago. A former Democrat, he switched parties to run in the Senate race because of his outrage over Obama's policies. He lives on a family farm.
Casey carries a golden name in Pennsylvania politics as the son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey. He's a former state auditor general and treasurer and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002. Six years ago, Casey defeated GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.
Until a few weeks ago, Casey did little campaigning in this race. Asked whether he took winning for granted, Casey said: “I never have and I never would.” His campaign this week accused Smith of being missing-in-action on the campaign trail.
Casey said the debate demonstrated the sharp contrasts between the two men on Medicare and Social Security. Smith has a “radical plan” that could jeopardize benefits, Casey said. He tied him to GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which Smith said he never endorsed.
Smith said seniors would be protected under his plan, and younger workers would bear any changes necessary to save the system.
When his latest grandson was born, “he was $51,000 in debt” because of the federal deficit, Smith said.
Asked whether they would eliminate aid for school lunches or federal food safety inspectors, Casey said no. Smith said lawmakers should review all government spending.
On the Supreme Court review of race and college admissions, Casey said he hoped the court would not limit efforts to “right ongoing wrongs.” Smith said people should be judged by character, not by skin color.
Asked about wage disparities between men and women, Smith said he believes in equal pay for equal work. Casey noted his support for a bill Republicans are blocking that would require employers to prove differences in pay are not gender-related. He said he voted for a 2009 law that expands a worker's ability to sue over pay inequity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.