Pa. Senate Hopefuls Remain In Tight Race

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Rep. Joe Sestak is running neck and neck in a Pennsylvania Senate race against Republican Pat Toomey. President Obama and President Clinton are just two of the political heavyweights who campaigned for him. We've requested interviews with both candidates. Today, NPR's Michele Norris hears from Sestak.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

If you need to measure the national importance of a Senate campaign, look no further than the cast of characters flying in to support the candidates, and look at Pennsylvania.

Both the Democratic and Republican Senate candidates have big-name supporters campaigning with them. For Democrat Joe Sestak, big names such as Michelle Obama, President Obama, and today, former president Bill Clinton is campaigning with Sestak.

Sestak, a congressman, is in a tight race with former congressman Pat Toomey. We've requested interviews with both candidates, and today we're going to hear from Congressman Sestak. Thanks so much for being with us.

Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania; Senatorial Candidate): Oh, it's great to be with you. Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, one of your primary messages is that you're going to go in and clean up the mess the other guys made, and by that you mean George Bush and your opponent Pat Toomey. Will that work in an election that is largely seen by many as a referendum on the current government?

Rep. SESTAK: Well, actually my message is that when I arrived in Congress, I was reminded of my very first job in the U.S. Navy, where I was damage control officer during the Vietnam War era on a warship. I felt when I arrived in Congress just a couple years ago, it was the year the recession began, and I had to control the damage.

But I want people to know that I did take those tough votes. Congressman Toomey, who helped shape the economic policies that led to this devastation of our economy, isn't the one that we can have do it again.

And on the other hand, as a public servant for 31 years in the military, we don't breed liberals. We don't breed conservatives. We breed problem-solvers.

I had to solve a problem, but now I want them to know it's about small-business tax cuts, where the middle class works to get the opportunity to drive this nation forward.

NORRIS: You talk about some of this in a very interesting ad. I want to ask you about one of your ads that features your family pet, a white poodle named Belle. And before we go on, let's take a quick listen.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Rep. SESTAK: My family loves Belle, but she can make a mess, and we have to clean it up. I think about Belle when I see Congressman Toomey's ads attacking me. It made me sick to bail out the banks, but I had to clean up the mess left behind by these guys. They let Wall Street run wild. Now Pat Toomey is attacking me for cleaning up his mess.

NORRIS: And when you talk about cleaning up that mess, you're holding a small, plastic bag that indicates that you were just cleaning up behind your family pet. You're holding dog poop in your hand, and you're dropping it in the trash can.

It seems like this was an ad done with late-night comedians like Jay Leno or Jon Stewart in mind.

Rep. SESTAK: Well, you know, I kind of lived my whole life with people, on a Navy ship, and I'm son of an immigrant. And we've all - really appreciate being able to make something clear in a simple way that families quite understand.

You may even own a dog and have had to clean up after the dog, and I thought it was a very simple way to come through. But then my ad this week just has me talking into the camera.

NORRIS: You know, there are a lot of ways to talk about cleaning up a mess, and you've spent a lot of time talking about the need for honor and civility in elections.

When you compare your rival to dog poop, where is the honor in that?

Rep. SESTAK: Well, actually, what we did is to compare the mess to something everybody understands. You know, when you've been out there in war, leading men and women into war, and you know that as they were gone that they were coming home, like they are today, to an economy that they threw into a real mess, you know, it is a matter of making it very simple, very clear.

NORRIS: In your ads, you say that it made you sick to bail out the banks. So are you saying it was a mistake for you to vote to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or vote for the lifelines for the automotive industry or Wall Street or to vote for the stimulus?

Rep. SESTAK: Oh, no, no. What I did is to say that it was something we -who wants to go to Washington and have to do what we had to do. But again, remember, as I said in the ad, Congressman Toomey actually had voted that corporations that invest in a factory in China don't have their profits taxed if they keep them over there, driving jobs overseas.

He said buying American is an unfortunate tendency. And so that helped us lose 98,000 jobs alone in Pennsylvania. So no, this is really something where you didn't want to do it, but it had to be done, and that's what leadership is about.

NORRIS: Is it hard to run as a Democrat right now?

Rep. SESTAK: No, it's - I don't run as a Democrat. I'm running as an independent representative...

NORRIS: But you are in that D category.

Rep. SESTAK: ...much as I stood in front of the camera this week to speak to Pennsylvanians, I will be your independent representative, who does believe in Democratic principles, but I believe in reaching across the aisle.

I think mainstream Republicans do have valuable principles, and we can work together to resolve those problems together for Pennsylvanians.

NORRIS: Joe Sestak, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Rep. SESTAK: Thank you so very much.

NORRIS: That was Congressman Joe Sestak, the Democratic Senate candidate from Pennsylvania. We have also requested an interview with his opponent, Republican Pat Toomey.

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