The candidates in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, Bob Casey and Tom Smith, faced off in their only debate Friday, clashing on familiar themes and addressing some subjects so far uncovered in the campaign.
The debate in Philadelphia garnered more interest that it might have because Smith, the little-known conservative Republican has spent enough of his personal wealth to make the race competitive, coming to within single digits of Casey, the incumbent Democrat, in recent polling.
The face-off Friday reflected the contours of the campaign. Smith is less practiced in politics and the details of policy, but speaks with conviction about his core beliefs — that government is too big, and that deficits pose a mortal threat to the nation’s future.
Casey presented himself as a moderate who believes in bipartisanship and protecting core government programs.
There was an early exchange on Obamacare.
“The Affordable Care Act that Sen. Casey voted for is one off the biggest power grabs in this nation’s history,” Smith said. “I want to see the Affordable Care Act repealed and replaced with a plan that respects our rights, pays our doctors and uses the free enterprise principles.”
“I think most people in the country on either side of this issue don’t want us to go back to the time when children with pre-existing issues don’t have coverage or treatment,” Casey responded. “Where young people up to the age of 26 can’t have the coverage on their parents or their families’ plan.”
‘Extremist’ vs. ‘career politician’
Casey repeatedly sought to portray Smith as an extremist who supports drastic plans that would end traditional Medicare. Smith denied that, saying he’s only said proposals from conservatives such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul are ideas to be considered.
Smith said Casey is a professional politician who shares the blame for runaway spending and soaring deficits.
But Channel 6 reporter Vernon Odom pressed Smith to be specific on spending cuts, and whether he would cut funding for school lunch programs and food inspectors, as some Republicans propose.
“I want to check every department, every policy that the federal government has,” Smith said. “The federal government we have allowed to grow so big, so suffocating, it touches every one of us.”
“But what would you cut, tell me specifically what you want to cut right now, you’ve been studying this,” Odom interjected.
“What I want to cut? I want to look at every department,” Smith said.
Casey said he would preserve those programs. Both candidates said they were anti-abortion and against new gun laws.
Smith’s inexperience with debates showed at moments. He twice called moderator Jim Gardner “Larry.” But he stuck to his message and never seemed visibly rattled.
On affirmative action
Gardner raised one issue that hasn’t come up in the campaign so far. He asked about a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and whether the University of Texas using race as one factor in college admissions should be banned.
Casey said the court shouldn’t strike down the Texas practice.
“If the Supreme Court were to make that decision, it would be a radical departure from where we’ve been more than one generation,” Casey said. “I think it’d be a step in the wrong direction. We still have a ways to go to make sure that the kind of discrimination that was in place for many generations is rectified.”
Smith’s answer was less clear.
“I believe that we should try to end bigotry and discrimination wherever we find it but it can’t be done in this situation,” Smith said. “If they overturn that, I don’t think the federal government should be discriminating against anybody, and basically that’s what this does. But we need to work to end all that without legislation, so to speak.”
When asked after the debate to clarify whether he thought the court should strike down race-based criteria for admissions, Smith turned and left without saying a word.
Neither candidate claimed victory to reporters after the debate. Both campaigns did so in press releases later.
The debate was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and 6ABC. It will be televised on Channel 6 Sunday at 1 p.m.