PITTSBURGH -- Pennsylvania's candidates for U.S. Senate clashed Friday over the best way to save more jobs during the recession, and both refused to take responsibility for the negative tone of the campaign during their second and last debate in a close and increasingly expensive race.
Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey met at Pittsburgh TV station WPXI for an hour-long debate in which they often tried to interrupt each other, and were scolded occasionally by moderator David Johnson for not directly or quickly answering a question.
With the possibility that still-undecided voters will tilt the tight race, they continued a theme of trying to paint the other as too extreme. While Sestak linked Toomey to the tea party-backed Republican and Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, Toomey hitched Sestak to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
The men -- ideological opposites -- both agreed that the tone of the campaign was unfortunate, but neither allowed that their ads had contributed.
Toomey pointed out that his first ad, run just after the May primary, called the candidates "good men" before it contrasted issues on which they disagree. Then he suggested that Sestak had not stuck to the issues, but Sestak shot back that he had been falsely accused in an ad even before his campaign had even aired a single one.
"His ad said for example that ... I voted to do away with all private health insurance plans," Sestak said. "How outrageously wrong that was. My daughter ... would have lost her health care plan if I had done this."
With polls showing Sestak and Toomey running about even less than two weeks away from the Nov. 2 election, national party committees, business groups, unions and others are pouring millions of dollars into the race in attack ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The men are vying to succeed Arlen Specter, a five-term senator whom Sestak beat in the May primary.
Toomey is a former investment banker, restaurateur and congressman from the Allentown area. Sestak is a retired Navy admiral and a second-term congressman from a suburban Philadelphia district.
As in Wednesday's debate in Philadelphia, the candidates repeatedly accused the other of dishonesty.
On the question of last year's economic stimulus law passed by Congress, Sestak said mainstream economists had projected an additional 8 million job losses without its blend of middle-class tax cuts and help for cash-strapped state governments and the unemployed.
Toomey insisted that three years of halving payroll taxes would have been more effective by making it less expensive for businesses to hire employees while avoiding wasteful project spending by government. He said nothing about offsetting deep state government deficits, where a large portion of stimulus money went.
China was ever-present in the discussion, as Sestak assailed Toomey as pushing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and large corporations that outsource jobs.
When Sestak contrasted himself as pressing for small-business tax credits to boost the middle class, Toomey belittled him as unable to understand the negative impact on businesses of Obama administration policies, such as the health care overhaul, that Sestak had supported.
"Joe has no experience in business and doesn't understand the consequences of the really bad policies that he's been proposing," Toomey said. Such tax credits, he said, are "a nickel" in comparison.
In a question on the separation of church and state, Toomey tried to clearly demonstrate that he understands the First Amendment separation of church and state -- an issue in O'Donnell's race -- but went on to suggest that it shouldn't be used to ban all involvement between religion and government.
As an example, he said parents of children in poorly performing public schools should be able to send their children on the public dime to private schools whether or not they have a religious affiliation.
Sestak said he clearly understands the separation of church and state and, after suggesting that "some extreme" candidates like O'Donnell do not, said he viewed religious congregations as crucial to helping solve problems in communities.