Sestak comeback? That's what could be happening in Pennsylvania, as Democrats point to tightening numbers in the Senate race between the former admiral and Pat Toomey, both of whom have served the Keystone State in Congress. The latest polls have Sestak up, when just a week ago a Rasmussen survey had him trailing by ten points. Our Howard Fineman explored some of the possible reasons for the surge: the state's deep blue voter registration edge for Dems, and the "antique yet still-potent Philadelphia machine" the party relies on to churn out votes. For his part of course, Pat Toomey hopes to capture voter discontent with the Obama administration and a little bit of Tea Party magic.
With less than two weeks left, the debate could prove decisive in the race. Speak your part in the comments below.
4:29 PM ET
8:37 PM ET Wicked Extreme
In sum, both candidates took pains to make the other look like the most extreme evvvvver. In an election year that also features serious contenders who want to repeal the 17th Amendment, that may be difficult. Toomey, who just a couple years ago looked laughably out of the mainstream to some Democratic observers, is now to the left of the likes of Christine O'Donnell and Sarah Palin. Sestak brought those two in by name to try to sketch what the Senate could look like in just a few short months if Toomey helps the GOP elect a majority leader.
That's it for me tonight, but you can follow reactions to the debate in the Twitter box below.
A couple of good folks on Twitter you may want to follow if you're dying to know more about the PA race: Alex Roarty (@Roarty_NJ) of the National Journal Group and Colby Itkowitz (@DCMorningCall), a political correspondent for the Allentown Morning Call. And of course our team: @HuffPostPol.
8:19 PM ET Bailout Joe or Comeback Joe?
One of two things will happen in this race: Toomey will succeed in painting Rep. Sestak as "Bailout Joe," or the admiral's tradition of come-from-behind victories will continue.
A new poll from Quinnipiac tomorrow should give more indication of the trend in this race, though it won't include voters' reaction to the debate tonight.
8:09 PM ET Can Toomey Regain the Momentum?
Toomey largely stuck to nationwide Republican talking points about the bailout, the stimulus, health care, Fannie and Freddie, and the general vague threat of socialism. He had a capable and poised performance -- but so did Sestak. If Toomey wants to get back in the lead he'll need to either hope the latest polls showing Sestak ahead are just a blip, or he'll need to try something new in the days ahead.
8:06 PM ET A Largely Drama-Free Evening
It's hard to see how this debate will do much to change anybody's mind; both Sestak and Toomey stuck to the same attack lines they've been using for the past month or so.
Down in the comments, ashton99 asks, “I have never seen Sestak speak before, is he always so calm?”
The short answer is yes. More optimistically for Dems, as Frustrated in PA puts it, "31 years in the military.....he is trained not to lose his cool and be very deliberate." Perhaps that deliberation will pay off.
8:00 PM ET Closers
No knockout punches in these relatively brief closing statements. Sestak asks the audience to go out there and vote for our soldiers and sailors -- not making much of an affirmative argument about the Obama agenda, but relying again on his military service.
Toomey, for his part, also doesn't have much that's positive to offer. He harps on Sestak's support for "serial bailouts" and "nationalizing whole industries." Sestak, he says, is "to the left of even the Democratic consensus." Strange that he's not calling Obama out by name, instead using (reusing, actually) this awkward construction about the "Democratic consensus." Perhaps his pollsters have found the president more popular here than the pundits assume.
7:56 PM ET The Daughter Factor
Sestak's a bit wooden (Toomey himself is not so charismatic, but a little livelier), but when he brings up his daughter, who survived brain cancer, as an example of health care that works, he can make a pretty good case about his vote for health care reform.
7:53 PM ET Overseas!
More tangling about offshoring, which further reinforces Sestak's favorite oceanic themes. Toomey namedrops a business some friends of his run in China, trying to make an argument about the interconnectivity of our globalized world. This is the second time he's cited a company by name, and again it seems strange.
UPDATE (8:49): Sestak's Twitter points out that the company Toomey was referring to, Air Products & Chemicals Inc., got million in earmarks from the Republican. Toomey has in turn received a large amount of campaign donations from Air Products.
7:49 PM ET Keeping It All on the Table
No surprises on Iran -- Toomey takes a tough but vague tone, and Sestak wants to keep all options in the dining room. More specifically, military action should "never be taken off the table, but should be put on the back of the table." Near the desserts and the salad bowl? Cliches aside, when Sestak speaks of the straits of Hormuz and says "I've patrolled those lanes," he speaks with some authority.
Somehow, Toomey says, Sestak spoke to a group that "embraces Hamas," which he sort of leaves dangling out there without explaining.
7:44 PM ET A Humble Parochial School
A question about school choice provides Toomey with another chance to mention that he's Catholic (about 30% of people in Pennsylvania, including all four major Senate and gubernatorial candidates, are Catholics), and has been "fortunate" enough to send his kids to a parochial school. The Toomester accuses Sestak of wanting to kill "school choice" for poor inner city youths.
Aha! Sestak rejoins, those same inner city youths came to me in the Navy, and we got them ship-shape right away. Another (slightly forced) mention of the admiral's career on the high seas, and the tone of understated avuncularity he strikes makes him sound a little disconnected.
7:34 PM ET Who Crashed My Economy?
Toomey keeps hitting hard on the fact that Sestak not only voted for the bailout bill and the economic stimulus, but even wanted a larger stimulus. It's hard to tell how this is playing in Pittsburgh, but Toomey clearly thinks it's a winning line.
Can the Paul Krugman account of the stimulus win over voters? Sestak isn't shrinking from his support of a bigger stimpack, and he's also happy to use the opportunity to bring up Bush and one of his persistent naval metaphors (a two-fer!).
When the economy crashed in 2008, "We'd been torpedoed, the ship was sinking, we had to caulk the holes!"
"There is no end to bailouts with Joe," Toomey responds, making the Democrat sound like some World War II propaganda poster villain: BAILOUT JOE.
7:27 PM ET "Those Bas--"
A question about whether people on the terror watch list should be able to buy guns (why the hell not, Toomey seems to say by avoiding an answer) segues into a back and forth about trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Toomey doesn't like these civilian trials, which might reveal our secrets or pose a security risk, although how exactly that would happen he doesn't spell out. He accuses Sestak of wanting to give KSM precious American legal protections.
A slightly emotional Sestak responds by talking about colleagues at the Pentagon who never made it out after 9/11, and about the terrorists who killed them. "Those bas--" he starts, before cutting himself off. Maybe finishing the curse on live TV could have underscored his tough-osity, but it's still primetime here in the PA television market, too early to swear in front of the children. He'd like to see Al Qaeda and co. put to death.
7:21 PM ET Roe vs. Wade
Toomey affirms that he's against abortion rights, but notes there are good people on both sides of the issue. A cliche I've never understood, if one believes abortion is murder.
"Palin. Toomey. O'Donnell. They all would like to overturn Roe versus Wade," Sestak intones in a dark drumbeat. Obviously his consultants do think, like some, that the masturbation-hatin' Delaware candidate can energize Dems across the border.
7:16 PM ET A Senior Moment
Should we privatize social security? That's the next question for Sestak, and it's a bit of a straw man, since even GOP candidates across the country don't like to use the P-word.
Sestak hits Toomey hard on the idea that he's jonesin' to privatize, and then throws into the mix the specter that somehow if we do our money will go to... China!
"The real jeopardy to Social Security is the reckless spending of Joe Sestak," Toomey responds, perhaps overstating things a bit. He says he just wants to reform the system so it can be sustained.
Sestak has probably had the better of this debate, since Toomey's longstanding (written) opposition to entitlement programs provides plenty of damning quotations. Those quotes seem much more convincing than Toomey's weak responses, although Sestak's populist act isn't particularly convincing in and of itself.
7:10 PM ET About That Palin Endorsement...
The second question in the middle of this great recession, from Stephanopoulos, is not another about jobs... but about that tweet Palin sent Toomey today. Pat doesn't seem too eager to lay claim to that, but admits he's happy to have the support of "whoever" wants to give it.
7:06 PM ET Who Likes Jobs More?
Co-moderator Jim Gardner is asking Sestak about job loss and offshoring. "How do you bring jobs back to Pennsylvania?"
Sestak brings up tax breaks for small businesses and then immediately pivots to a line of attack about offshoring jobs to China. This is a newly popular refrain for Democrats across the country, and Sestak in particular is ramping up the Sinophobia.
Toomey responds that he's the only one of the two who's actually created jobs himself as a businessman.
And Sestak is very pleased Toomey brought up his business past: "You were working in CHINA for a CHINESE billionaire."
7:00 PM ET The Ad War
Sestak and Toomey have been facing off for weeks with a series of increasingly pointed television ads. The Democrat has tied Toomey to former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin in an ominous ad that ran earlier this month. For her part, Palin endorsed Toomey earlier today on Twitter (with a tweet that seemed to inadvertently back WV candidate John Raese as well).
Karl Rove-backed third party group Crossroads GPS has been hitting Sestak hard with accusations (rated "barely true" by PolitiFact) that he voted to 'gut' Medicare spending.
6:31 PM ET Welcome
At 7pm Eastern the first debate between Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak and Republican candidate Pat Toomey, a former representative and head of the Club for Growth, will begin in Philadelphia. ABC's George Stephanopoulos will host, and you can follow the action on this liveblog.