Pennsylvania's one million military veterans were the focus of the Senate race Thursday, as Republican Pat Toomey touted an endorsement from a former secretary of the Navy, and a veterans' group began a door-to-door drive for his Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak.
Reagan-era Navy Secretary John F. Lehman's nod to Toomey was an answer of sorts to Sestak's biggest selling point in the campaign: a 31-year Navy career, during which Sestak reached the rank of vice admiral, which he often contrasts with Toomey's former career on Wall Street.
"Pat is a man of principle and integrity," Lehman, a Philadelphia native, said during an appearance with Toomey in Harrisburg. "His commitment to the principles of limited government, individual freedom, and personal liberty are unwavering.. . . I know he will always put the security of our country first."
Lehman, who was also a member of the 9/11 commission, criticized Sestak for his position that terrorist suspects should be tried in civilian courts. Sestak also opposed the war in Iraq.
Sestak's campaign, in a statement, paid tribute to Lehman's "honorable service" but noted that he is a longtime investment banker and founder of a private equity firm. It's a "shock to no one," said Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin, that a fellow Wall Streeter would endorse Toomey, a former congressman from Allentown who later headed the antitax Club for Growth.
The endorsement came as a new survey, conducted by Susquehanna Research & Polling for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, found Toomey leading Sestak 45 percent to 42 percent, within the poll's margin of error. Several recent polls have given Toomey a much bigger lead.
Susquehanna interviewed 800 likely Pennsylvania voters by phone Sept. 23-26, and the margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.
Also Thursday, the political arm of VoteVets.org, a group of veterans critical of the Iraq war, embarked on a $500,000 campaign to deliver fliers door to door across the state attacking Toomey.
The fliers picture Toomey next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and say that the Republican's opposition to the Democrats' clean-energy legislation keeps the United States dependent on oil from the unstable Middle East. They also mention Toomey's support, as a House member from 1999 to 2005, for expanded oil drilling and tax breaks for the industry.
Toomey also voted against a $1,500 bonus for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the fliers note. The bonus was part of a broader defense appropriations bill in 2003 that was rejected on a party-line vote.
Veterans and military families are doing the door-knocking for VoteVets and plan to distribute 100,000 fliers. The group also is targeting the Eighth District, where Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.) faces a tough reelection fight, and the Seventh, where Democrat Bryan Lentz, a state lawmaker, is running for an open seat. Both Murphy and Lentz are Army veterans of the Iraq war.
The Toomey campaign is running a TV ad that compliments Sestak's Navy service but attacks him for "extreme" positions it says he has taken in Washington, voting for "bailouts, debt, government health care and job-killing energy taxes."
Toomey said Thursday that Lehman would not have endorsed him if he were not a strong supporter of the military and veterans.