The third debate between the two major party candidates running to replace Rep. Joe Sestak (D, Pa.) brought testier answers, squirm-inducing exchanges and cheers from supporters of both campaigns in the audience who gobbled up the red meat.
Independent candidate Jim Schneller, who has so far been locked out of the debates, added a certain je ne sais quoi to the event: he sat in a back row, glowering at his two opponents as they sweated under the stage lights Tuesday evening at the Suburban Jewish Community Center-Bnai Aaron in Haverford.
Some of the debate’s best moments stemmed from questions about health care and the deficit and the debt, an issue that not only ranks high in polls of voters concerns but has helped tea-party candidates best more moderate Republicans in races across the country, including, most recently, Delaware.
Republican candidate Patrick Meehan, 54, of Drexel Hill, said he would vote to repeal the health care bill, which he said does not work to control health care costs.
“There was no real dialogue in Congress,” Meehan said. “This is one of the problems with one-party rule.”
When asked how he’d cut the budget and help reduce the deficit, Meehan said he’d first recapture unspent funds from the stimulus and bank bailout packages. He also advocated for performance-based budgeting.
Democrat Bryan Lentz, a two-term state representative from Swarthmore, chastised Meehan for throwing the baby out with the bathwater on health care.
"If you're going to Congress and your first mission is to repeal a bill that is going to give health insurance to sick people -- to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against children because they’re sick -- and your first vote is to repeal that, then I don’t want you to be my Congressman I’ll tell you that right now,” he said.
The heath care bill is imperfect, Lentz said, but he agrees with some of the basic premises, including ending discrimination by insurance companies against those with pre-existing illnesses.
As for the deficit, Lentz, a former Army Airborne Ranger who deployed to Iraq in 2004, suggested cuts in national defense
"I challenge anyone to tell me I’m soft on national security,” Lentz said. “But we gotta cut defense, and expensive defense is not necessarily good defense. You can’t be serious about deficit and debt reduction if you’re not willing to look at and cut programs in defense.”
Meehan took this opportunity to go after Lentz for his votes in Harrisburg that increased taxes.
"Talking about cutting taxes from a guy who voted for a budget that is a billion dollars more than the year before,” Meehan said.
Later he asked Lentz, “That’s great rhetoric at the moment, but why wasn’t that the performance that was done in Harrisburg, when these same opportunities were there?”
“We don’t have an Army in Harrisburg,” Lentz said as his supporters giggled.
Lentz, 46, a two-term state representative from Swarthmore, has defended his votes to increase funding for education and other programs.
"I voted to fund education, I voted to pass a budget that pays for our prisons… I voted to fund that state’s share of Medicaid,” Lentz said. “I did my job and I’ll do my job in Washington D.C. if you send me there.”
Lentz then asked Meehan if he would have supported a $500 million increase in education funding, which Lentz supported.
After a pregnant pause, Meehan answered, “I would have supported a budget that would have held the line more on spending."
The Jewish vote in Delaware County is relatively small compared to Philadelphia, Montgomery or Bucks County. Still, about 21,400 Jews live in Delaware County, according to a 2009 population study conducted by the Jewish Federation. That’s about 4 percent of the total county population.
The two candidates have at least two more debates scheduled. So far, Schneller, a former a former sales and marketing director who lives in Wayne, has not been invited to any of them.