Philadelphia — When Pennsylvania voters make their choice in 10 days, they won’t see a great orator on the ballot for U.S. Senate. But Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s informed yet boring and bland performance stood above Republican Tom Smith’s passionate fumbling and nonspecificity.
As polls continued to show a close race, both men stood before the moderator, ABC’s Jim Gardner, and made their case for a term in Washington. The debate was hosted by WPVI and the League of Women Voters.
“Medicare is a promise to the folks who fought our wars, worked in our factories, built the middle class, and built this country,” Casey said in his introduction. “There’s a vast difference between the two of us on that issue.”
“My opponent Tom Smith thinks that we should take away that guaranteed benefit of Medicare and change it either by giving someone a voucher or changing it even more radically.”
“I’m just an old farm boy who got misplaced in the coal mines and wound up in business. But I grew up in an America where a farm boy who knew how to work could follow his dreams and achieve success,” Smith said. On his grandkids and the children in his community, “I worry about their America. The America which you and I will soon turn over to them.”
Smith has never faced a debate audience as large or as important as the one who will watch the broadcast in this race, and it showed.
He mistook the moderator’s name – twice – calling him “Larry.”
“I’m Jim,” Gardner responded.
Smith appeared on Philly host Larry Kane’s “Voice of Reason” earlier in the week.
On numerous issues – including budget cuts, affirmative action, banking regulations and more, Smith started out with an on-message answer about a broad topic. But when the moderator pushed for more details, he came up short.
For example, when asked to name a specific part of the budget he would look to cut, Smith said, “I always start where the biggest problem is, and it’s in all the departments.”
On other issues, like Iran’s nuclear program and gun control, he said he agreed with Casey.
That was a sound tactical decision when the topic was abortion. Both candidates we asked about comments by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said during a debate that pregnancies resulting from rape are a gift from God.
Casey and Smith both said they rejected Mourdock’s remarks.
“I don’t agree with what that candidate said. It was an outrageous statement,” Casey said. He added that he’s a pro-life Democrat and emphasized his support for contraception.
Smith, who stumbled in major fashion on a question about abortion in August, took a much more cautious approach.
“No, not at all. And I am pro-life,” Smith said, and tried to pivot back the economy. The moderator brought him back to abortion. “He shoulda never said anything like that and I don’t agree with it. So let’s be perfectly clear, since there seems to be some misunderstanding here. I am pro-life. Period.”
“But what I find…” he started to say, before presumably remembering the hours of his campaign prep team coaching him to avoid the topic. “And, that’s it.”
He had strong moments, too, not just by avoiding unforced errors but particularly when he went after Casey.
“You have brought up that I endorse the Ryan plan and I endorse these plans. No, I said they were plans,” Smith said. “At least the had the forward thinking and the courage to bring out various plans, which few people in your party – and I don’t think you ever have either – on how we get Social Security secured, how we get Medicare secured.”
Casey, on the other hand, debated cautiously; he consistently offered wonkish responses to questions. The closest he came to passion was when he decried the partisanship of Washington, a problem which he said Smith would exacerbate.
“I would hope that my opponent, if he were to be elected to the U.S. Senate, would say to the Tea Party, we need to invest in the future, we need to create jobs, we need to move the economy forward,” Casey said on the topic of transportation funding.
He repeatedly hammered Smith for the Republican’s kind words – mostly during the primary – about controversial budget plans that would alter entitlement programs and shift the tax burden to the middle class.
“The budget proposal that Vice Presidential candidate Ryan set forth… In there you see tax implications for the whole country. When the Washington Post analyzed the tax proposals in the Ryan budget, they said middle class taxes would go up,” Casey said.
“So if you want a middle class tax increase, I think Tom Smith is your candidate.”
But the subdued style for which Casey is known hampered his efforts to paint Smith as a Tea Party extremist. He seemed content to keep the debate on dry policy topics and missed many opportunities to challenge Smith directly or throw the Republican off balance.
When his voice might have raised to a crescendo, for example about Medicare, it remained a low monotone.
The one time Casey did challenge Smith – to dispute his assertion that the Senate hasn’t passed a budget – Smith was noticeably affected.
Ultimately, Casey came out ahead. He appeared more senatorial and demonstrated a better grasp on the issues. Smith spoke with the voice of the common man, angry at Washington’s ineffectiveness – passionate at times, but he struggled to go beyond the basic slogans and ideas from his television ads.
But neither man really stood out, and Smith probably covered the spread.
Luckily for both, the viewing audience for the debate is likely to be quite low. It’s scheduled to air at 1pm on Sunday on WPVI, the same time as kickoff for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers games.
Other stations are free to rebroadcast after the initial airing.