Specter and Sestak trade shots in final debate

    A bit more than two weeks before Pennsylvania Democrats go to the polls to select their Senate nominee, Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Joe Sestak met for a face-to-face debate.

    A bit more than two weeks before Pennsylvania Democrats go to the polls to select their Senate nominee, Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Joe Sestak met for a face-to-face debate.

    [AUDIO:100501SDDEMDEBATE.mp3]

    Sestak has been itching for a debate against Senator Arlen Specter for months.

    A half hour before things got underway, Sestak tweeted, “I can smell the cordite in the air”– that’s an old type of gunpowder, for non-military folks.

    But it was Specter who fired the first shot, turning to Sestak during his opening statement and making a charged request.

    “I want an apology from Congressman Sestak for his television advertisement which calls me a liar,” said Specter. “I’ve been in public service for 43 years, including wearing the cloth of my country in the United States Air Force. And nobody has ever called me a liar.”

    The ad in question is a response to Specter’s commercial stating Sestak was relieved from duty for creating a “poor command climate.”

    The quote came from the Navy Times.

    But Sestak, a three-star Admiral, says the paper got it wrong, and he voluntarily retired after being reassigned.

    Sestak has called the “poor command climate” spot a “swift boat”-style attack, and brought it up during his response.

    “When false assertions, like Arlen Specter just said, are taken against a veteran, they don’t say anything about me,” said Sestak. “They say more about himself. Down there in Washington, D.C., too many career politicians actually use spear tactics, because they can’t run on their record.”

    Sestak repeatedly attacked Specter for being an opportunistic Democrat during the debate.

    Repeating a basic theme of his campaign, Sestak said Specter only switched parties when he realized he couldn’t defeat Pat Toomey in a Republican primary.

    The Democratic establishment, including President Obama, Governor Rendell and Senator Bob Casey, immediately embraced Specter as a Democrat, but Sestak said that doesn’t give him a free ride on May 18th.

    “I understand why they had to, when he could not win in a Republican primary, say we’ve now got the 60th vote,” said Sestak. “But what did that gain us? He’s the Junior Senator from Pennsylvania. There’s only two senators out of 100 who are junior to him. And the Democratic Caucus denied him his seniority back that he called on ‘Meet the Press’ his entitlement.”

    Specter argued he’s stood with Democrats on “the really big issues,” such as abortion rights and the minimum wage, throughout his entire career.

    He said a long track record of accomplishment during his three decades in the Senate are the main difference between him and Sestak, making a point about getting results during a back-and-forth about sexual assault on college campuses.

    “Congressman Sestak talks about a resolution he introduced,” said Specter. “I introduced a bill that was enacted into law.”

    The law in question requires colleges to share their community crime rate data with prospective students.

    About halfway through the debate, moderator John Baer of the Philadelphia Daily News asked Specter and Sestak what their biggest mistakes were.

    Sestak said he didn’t listen to older officers enough when he first joined the Navy.

    Specter said he regrets taking then-Judge John Roberts at his word during 2005 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Chief Justice, when he promised to defer to Court precedent.

    After the forum, though, Specter refused to say whether he wishes he had voted against Roberts.

    “I’m not going to revisit the vote, because that gets involved in a lot of votes,” said Specter. “I made my best judgment at the time.”

    The race seems to be tightening.

    A  Quinnipiac University poll from early April gave Specter a 53% to 32% lead over Sestak, but a Muhlenberg College survey released over the weekend shows a gap of just six points, with Specter ahead 48% to 42%.

    Both campaigns have the financial resources to blanket Pennsylvania’s airwaves with commercials over the next two weeks.

    Meaning before it’s all said and done, there will be a lot more gunpowder will be in the air.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.