Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Friday brings the first and only debate between the two men vying for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat. It may be the one time Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey and GOP challenger Tom Smith will share the same stage.
Republican consultant Charlie Gerow said he’ll be watching for style and tone. How aggressive Casey will be? How specific will Smith be?
“If Bob Casey is kind of laid back and rolls with the punches, I think that will be a missed opportunity for him,” said Gerow. “Conversely, I think it will be interesting to see how specific Tom Smith is in going after Sen. Casey. If he is simply lobbing the stock speech or whether he’s got some specific bullets he’s prepared to fire.”
Recent polls showed Casey’s once-sizeable lead over Smith has shrunk to the single digits. But Democratic political strategist Larry Ceisler said the race likely won’t be decided by a debate, even if Smith comes out on top.
“I mean, this senate race is not about debates, it’s about media advertising and you know, how the people at the top of the ticket are going to do in bringing people out to vote,” he said.
Smith has been on the air for months with an ad campaign buoyed by millions of his own money. Casey has only recently begun campaigning in-person in earnest. This week an outside Democratic super PAC announced it would bankroll Pittsburgh-area TV ads on his behalf.
Casey has been dubbed “Senator Zero” by his opponent’s TV ads, so he’ll likely use the debate to point to his record in the Senate. Smith has tried to link him to the president, “believing that Barack Obama’s unpopular in areas where he needs to pick up votes,” said Gerow. If a recent campaign stop is any indicator, Casey will try to put some daylight between him and Mr. Obama. Speaking to union workers in Hershey this week, he pointed out past political decisions in which he was at odds with other Democrats and the president.
Smith doesn’t have to defend a record, but he doesn’t have the benefit of pointing to one, either. As a political newcomer, he may not have Casey’s command of the issues, which Ceisler said could hurt him in Friday’s debate.
“Probably it’s going to be a clash of different types of styles,” said Ceisler. “But certainly because Bob Casey has been in public life, he’s an attorney, and he’s been through this, you know I think probably goes into it a lot more comfortable.”
Gerow insists the debate will have impact, mostly because it’s the only one scheduled between the candidates, and voters don’t recognize Smith’s name as readily as they do his opponent. “They’ve seen a lot of him on TV,” said Gerow, “but they haven’t gotten a chance to see him unvarnished, unrehearsed.”
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