Pennsylvania Senate Race Pivotal For Democrats

President Obama heads out on the campaign trail this weekend for one last push before Election Day. One of those stops is in Pennsylvania, where Democrats hope to pull off a come-from-behind victory in a U.S. Senate race. For most of the year, Republican Pat Toomey held what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the polls. But in recent weeks, Democrat Joe Sestak has narrowed the gap.

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President Obama is still out campaigning. This weekend he'll stop in Pennsylvania. Democrats there are hoping to pull off a last minute victory in the Senate race. For most of this year, Republican Pat Toomey has held what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the polls. But in recent weeks, Democrat Joe Sestak has narrowed that gap. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: For decades no politician embodied Pennsylvania better than Arlen Specter, a moderate who's held this Senate seat since 1981. Specter left the Republican party last year, then lost the Democratic primary in May. That leaves Pennsylvania voters with a stark choice.

Chris Bohrick teaches political science at Muhlenberg College.

Dr. CHRIS BOHRICK (Muhlenberg College): It is ironic that after 30 years of one of the most pragmatic middle-of-the-road senators in the form of Arlen Specter, his replacement is going to come from either the left-wing or the right-wing of the ideological spectrum.

ROSE: On the left is Joe Sestak, a two-term congressman who defied the odds and his own party to beat Specter. On the right is Pat Toomey, a former congressman and president of the Club for Growth, a group that advocates for lower taxes and less government spending.

Mr. PAT TOOMEY (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Pennsylvania): The combined weight of all of this excess from Washington is having a chilling effect on the private sector.

ROSE: Toomey spoke to a packed house this week at the Rotary Club of York, Pennsylvania. Todd Lord was in the audience. He says Toomey's message is resonating with voters here who are worried about the economy.

Mr. TODD LORD: Well, a lot of these folks are small business people that are struggling and the economy is certainly the number one issue for them.

ROSE: That issue helped make Pat Toomey the front runner with a comfortable lead in the polls for much of the summer and fall, but in the last few weeks polls have shown the gap closing to just a few points.

(Soundbite of diner)

ROSE: Joe Sestak is known as a tireless campaigner. The former Navy vice admiral practically runs from one appearance to the next in downtown Reading. Sestak sits down long enough to order a cup of black coffee at a diner, and to portray his opponent as beholden to big business.

Congressman JOE SESTAK: (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Pennsylvanians don't want someone who actually believes that corporations should have no taxes, who actually says take Social Security and privatize it? Those are pretty radical, extreme ideas.

ROSE: Ideas that are not playing so well in traditionally Democratic strongholds like Reading. Jay Holt says he'll be voting for Sestak on Tuesday.

Mr. JAY HOLT: Because I believe he's for the working people. Real simple. I just think Mr. Toomey - I think he's just for the establishment.

ROSE: Sestak has tried repeatedly to remind voters that Pat Toomey used to work on Wall Street, most dramatically in a TV ad comparing the country's economic problems to a bag of dog poop.

(Soundbite of ad)

Congressman SESTAK: 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.

ROSE: Toomey counters that it's Sestak who should be held accountable for the country's economic mess.

Mr. TOOMEY: I've been out of Congress for six years. Joe's been there for the last four years, voting for all the bailouts, the stimulus, all the spending, voting for these huge deficits and debt, and he wants to try to blame me for his votes.

ROSE: Political scientist Chris Bohrick says this back and forth is typical of a campaign where both candidates have tried to paint the other as an extremist.

Dr. BOHRICK: It'll be interesting to see which one of those arguments is bought more by the Pennsylvania public and those middle-of-the-road voters that in the end decide races here.

ROSE: No matter what, the race looks to be a lot closer than most people thought.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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