Traveling to their respective sympathetic grounds Friday, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak picked up the endorsement of African American religious leaders in Philadelphia while his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey, appeared at rallies in central Pennsylvania.

"American stands at a critical crossroads," said Bishop Audrey F. Bronson, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, at a brief news conference outside Simon Gratz High School in Hunting Park. "A person of character and conviction like Joe Sestak is needed in the Senate to thwart the efforts of the reactionary elements who would like to return America to the political stone age."

Toomey railed against Sestak for supporting "serial bailouts of failing companies, government nationalizing whole industries, spending money on a scale we've never seen before," the stimulus plan, the cap-and-trade energy tax, and the federal health-care bill.

"Joe Sestak has voted for every single item on that agenda. There are no exceptions," Toomey said at a rally in Lancaster County. "His only criticism is that it doesn't go far enough. It's amazing."

He added: "You didn't probably think there was room there, but Joe Sestak has found a way to get to the left of Nancy Pelosi. It is a fact. He's voting with Nancy Pelosi 100 percent of the time. But here's the good news: I'm pretty sure Pennsylvania is not going to elect a San Francisco liberal to the U.S. Senate."

Toomey said that growing government was not the key to economic recovery, and that both federal and state government should be pushing policies that will encourage job growth in the private sector. He advocated making the 2003 tax cuts permanent and reining in spending.

"This isn't rocket science," said Toomey. "If we clear away the threats coming out of Washington, the excessive regulation, the government takeover . . . then I am convinced that the 21st century will be another great American century." He urged people attending the rally to get out and vote Tuesday, and do everything they can between now and then to urge their friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

"We can all be confident, but we can't be complacent," he said. "We've got a great opportunity to take back our country and get it on the right track."

On Friday, Toomey added the endorsement of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union.

Bronson, whose organization represents about 400 clergy in the Philadelphia region, said that endorsing Sestak was "the obvious choice."

"Mr. Toomey didn't make himself available to us," she said, adding that this election is extremely important to city residents. At stake are "the welfare of our families, the future of our schools, the safety of our streets, and the quality of our lives as urban Americans."

Waiting for the event to begin, Sestak had struck up a conversation with several Gratz students walking by and handed them his business cards. "We have 55 college and high school internships," he said. "And if I become senator, God willing, we'd love to have you join us."

Afterward, the Rev. Suzanne Harmon-Carn, associate minister of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church, approached the girls. "Hold on to that card and remember that name," she said. "This is a great moment in your life."

Senior Takeyiah Scott, 18, was the only one of the three old enough to vote but said she had not registered. She hopes to go to college, she said, and wants to become a hairdresser.

Scott and her friends stayed to watch the news conference that was held on the sidewalk under a mural depicting the late Ruth Wright Hayre, who was once denied the right to teach in the Philadelphia schools and went on to become the first female president of the Philadelphia school board. Her image is accompanied by her words Tell them we are rising.

When Sestak took the microphone, he spoke of his work on the House Education and Labor Committee, and invited the students to join him in front of the television cameras. "I am running for U.S. Senate for them," he said and then quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "The key to freedom is education."

Several members of the black clergy at the Sestak event said they would be rallying the community to go door to door and urging their congregants to vote because it is their civic responsibility. Asked how many votes she thought they could muster, Bronson said: "I don't know."

Sestak interjected, "I heard it was enough to win!"

"That's our story and we're sticking with it," the bishop joked.

As the event wrapped up, a youth ran up to the congressman, calling, "Are you Joe Sestak?" The youth, Tevin Lopez, a senior at Gratz, told Sestak he would be voting for him Tuesday.

"I turn 18 on Saturday," Lopez said. "Me and my mom were talking about him. We like his plans on taxes and stuff."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.