In a race where both campaigns have wrangled with gusto over nearly everything, down to signatures on nominating petitions, the first debate between the major-party candidates in Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District was more mild than wild.
Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Patrick Meehan, who are running to replace U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, agreed more than not at their first debate, which was hosted by Larry Kane and will be broadcast at 9:30 p.m. Sunday on the Comcast Network.
The candidates agreed that tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year should be extended. They agreed that tax incentives for business could spur job growth. They even generally agreed on typically divisive issues, such as gay marriage: Lentz supports civil unions, and Meehan said civil unions are a matter that should be left for states to decide.
When they attacked, their plays largely came from mirror playbooks: pin the other guy to the troubles of an administration.
For Meehan, 54, a former U.S. attorney from Drexel Hill, that meant bemoaning the debt taken on since President Obama took over in 2009, and criticizing Lentz for voting as a state representative to raise taxes.
"In addition to the spending, there's a tremendous concern over the remarkable debt that has been run up, certainly since this recession has begun but principally since 2008," Meehan said.
Meehan said he would not have voted for the stimulus package.
"Not that there shouldn't have been dollars that should have been directed in a time that was very sensitive, but I think that stimulus was directed at the wrong kind of things," he said.
In response to Meehan's criticism that he voted for a state budget in 2008-09 that was $1 billion more than the previous year's budget, Lentz, 46, of Swarthmore, said he voted for it to help pay for education.
"The all-Republican school board of Upper Darby High School lobbied us for that increase because they needed it to provide a quality education," Lentz said. "Do you know who pays if the state doesn't give Upper Darby that increase? The property taxpayer, and they can tell you - the senior citizens - how much their property taxes have gone up in recent years."
During the 25-minute debate, Lentz tried to tie Meehan to the Bush administration's policies, which he blamed for the recession.
"This recession . . . didn't come upon us like a plague," Lentz said. "There was a cause of this and the cause was the economic policies of the Bush administration, which Pat's essentially espousing now on the campaign trail."
He also asked Meehan to define his brand of Republicanism. Meehan is generally viewed as a moderate, but he has received support from the Independence Hall Tea Party. Voter registration in Delaware County, the heart of the Seventh District, favors the GOP, and Republican voters in the district are generally more concerned with fiscal matters than social ones.
Meehan showed no signs Thursday that he intended to move further right. He acknowledged that under President George W. Bush, "the Republicans lost, a little bit, the sense of fiscal accountability."
"Extremism isn't where the world is going to make progress," he said later in the debate.
Lentz is also pitching himself toward the middle. When asked about gay marriage, he said civil unions were a "practical approach." Asked about the plan to build an Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site, Lentz said the feelings of those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, should be considered.
"Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it," Lentz said. "Obviously under the Constitution they're permitted to do it, but I think it's reasonable to consider the wishes and the concerns of the victims and their families."