HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, is trying to appeal to a large voting bloc that might favor his Democratic rival, Joe Sestak: The state's 1 million veterans.
Sestak is a decorated former Navy admiral who commanded an entire fleet in battle after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The second-term congressman from suburban Philadelphia is also supported by VoteVets.org, and one of his television ads trumpets his military record: "Thirty-one years protecting America, leading the fight against terrorism. ... A decorated veteran fighting for us, Admiral Joe Sestak."
Toomey, who served in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2005 representing the Allentown area, was endorsed Thursday by a former Navy secretary appointed by President Ronald Reagan, John Lehman. And he is running an ad that's careful to compliment Sestak's Navy service while criticizing his "extreme" votes in Washington: "Bailouts, debt, government health care and job-killing energy taxes."
Both Toomey and Sestak claim strong support for veterans' causes.
In votes highlighted by the nonprofit organization Disabled American Veterans as of the utmost importance to veterans, Toomey scored three out of seven from 2000 to 2004, while Sestak scored a perfect four out of four from 2008-09.
This week, VoteVets.org, a veteran's organization critical of the war in Iraq, said its political arm is spending at least $500,000 to hang fliers on 100,000 doors around Pennsylvania.
The fliers say Sestak is better for veterans, clean energy policy and the environment, and accuse Toomey of favoring Big Oil and Wall Street.
Hal Donahue, a retired Air Force officer from Scranton who volunteers for VoteVets, said he tries to win over GOP vets for Sestak by telling them: "Do you know (Toomey) voted against the $1,500 combat bonus for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?"
The vote was an October 2003 amendment to a wider defense appropriations bill that was rejected on a near party-line basis.
Dave Norris, an Army vet and registered Democrat from the Pittsburgh suburb of Brackenridge, said veterans' issues and military service are important to him. The retired steelworker said he's leaning toward voting for Toomey — he also supported GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 — because of his frustration with the economy, the rising federal debt and an economic stimulus that, he said, doesn't seem to have helped the lower or middle classes.
Democrats "went about it the wrong way," Norris said. "They should have helped the common person, the lower class, the middle class that needs the help day to day and it's not getting to them."
David Clapper, an Army veteran from suburban Philadelphia who retired after working for the Air Force Reserve, said he is undecided. He said he is looking to vote for a moderate who works against partisan polarization and will be willing to show leadership on serious problems such as the national debt.
In the 2008 presidential election, the registered independent cast a write-in ballot for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg because of his financial expertise.
"John McCain was in the military and a prisoner of war," Clapper said, "and that didn't cut any mustard with me."
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