Weldon, Sestak spar on issues at home, abroad

DREXEL HILL, Pa. – Republicans have won three elections in a row capitalizing on the advantages of incumbency – money, districts gerrymandered for maximum protection, and a highly evolved voter-turnout operation. They’ve also counted on the public’s perception that they are better equipped to manage the war on terror and keep Americans safe.

But with President Bush’s approval ratings stuck in the mid- to high-30s and little good news coming out of Iraq, Republicans across the country have been emphasizing local issues in the hopes of overcoming an anti-Republican environment. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) followed this script in last week’s debate, hosted by the Delaware County Press Club, against his Democratic opponent, Joe Sestak.

A recent Keystone poll indicated that Sestak and the 10-term congressman are in a dead heat.

In the debate, Weldon highlighted his roots in the 7th District, his volunteer service in the Marcus Hook fire department and his efforts in Congress to deliver local projects to the district. Sestak homed in on national issues, including the war in Iraq, healthcare and education, to echo the Democratic message of “change” and a “new direction.”

Sparks flew early when Weldon challenged Sestak to name the executive director of a local nonprofit.

“You’ve probably never been there, Joe. Joe, do you even know who the executive director is? I’ll give you the time,” Weldon said.

The moderator firmly reminded the candidates that they agreed they would not address each other.

“It’s OK, Curt, it’s OK,” Sestak said, after Weldon apologized.

A few minutes later, Sestak linked Weldon to former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned recently after the media revealed he had sent inappropriate e-mails to former male House pages.

“I have a lot of concern today about seeing the leadership down in Congress,” said Sestak. “What defines the particular GOP leadership that [Weldon] has voted with nine out of 10 times [is that the leadership] had known about a predator and did nothing about it.”

Sestak launched his most vicious attack after a panelist asked the candidates to talk about their personal backgrounds. Weldon has charged that Sestak, who did not live in the district during his 31-year Navy career, is a carpetbagger. Sestak retired from the Navy last year and continued to maintain his Virginia residence because his daughter was being treated for a malignant brain tumor in Washington, D.C. Weldon told The Hill last spring that Sestak should have sent his daughter to a hospital in Delaware or Philadelphia.

“Do I have a home in Virginia? Yes, I do. I bought it when I worked at the Pentagon. Mr. Weldon, you know that I know why I still have that home — for my daughter’s medical care,” Sestak said. “To go any further than that, or to use it as a personal attack, means you’ve been in Washington too long.”

Weldon landed some of his own punches, too, usually by highlighting how he knows “this county like a glove.”

The candidates’ biggest disagreement came over Iraq: Sestak favors a withdrawal and redeployment of troops. Weldon reiterated his plan to bypass Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and let the military determine a course of action.