ALLENTOWN - For 90 minutes last night, two candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey, laid out the liberal and conservative positions on health-care reform in detail during a town-hall meeting at Muhlenberg College.
There were no snide sound-bite putdowns from the politicians, and members of the audience of 400 asked their questions without yelling or abuse.
Both men said that was the point: to have a civil debate on an emotional issue, a contrast to August's public unrest over proposals by President Obama and his allies in Congress to overhaul the health-care system.
Their common political foe, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), was not mentioned once during the forum.
"We came here to have a substantive discussion about policy, and we did. It's kind of hard to have that with Arlen Specter, because he systematically tries to be on both sides of every issue, so it's much harder to," Toomey, a former congressman from Allentown, told reporters afterward.
Sestak, a member of the U.S. House from Delaware County, said it was vital to have a government-run health-insurance option to provide competition for private insurers, driving down premiums and bringing coverage to the uninsured.
"We saw what happens when you let corporations determine the rules - that's what we had on Wall Street, and look at your IRAs and 401(k)s," Sestak said.
Toomey, who was the leader of the antitax group Club for Growth, until beginning his Senate campaign in April, noted that the Obama administration has signaled it is backing away from the "radical and extreme" government-run plan.
"Do we believe we can't have competitive grocery stores unless we have a government grocery store?" Toomey asked.
A better approach, Toomey argued, would be to foster competition in the private market with reforms such as allowing people to buy insurance policies across state lines. He said a government plan would encourage employers to stop providing health-care benefits to their workers and would hit the health-care providers hard because the main House bill pending would mandate reimbursement rates much lower than those of private insurers.
He also said that the country can't afford the Democrats' plan, coming after the multibillion-dollar bailouts and stimulus spending packages and growing deficits. "We have such a staggering amount of debt, it's economically unsustainable," Toomey said.
Sestak drew laughter when he pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office projected the House bill would not add to the deficit. "What, did I part my hair on the wrong side?" he joked.
Toomey, 47, lost the 2004 GOP primary to Specter by about 17,000 votes out of a little more than one million cast. Toomey was gearing up for another go in next year's primary, and his strong showing in polls helped persuade Specter to bolt the Republican Party in late April.
Embraced by the White House, Gov. Rendell, and other elements of the Democratic establishment as the preferred candidate, Specter seemed to have a smooth path to the nomination - until Sestak jumped in the way.
Sestak, 57, is a retired Navy flag officer from Delaware County in his second term, the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to the House. He has decried what he calls the "anointing" of Specter by party leaders, arguing that Pennsylvania Democratic voters themselves should decide the nominee at the polls. Sestak positions himself as the true liberal in the primary and has drawn support from influential Internet activists.
Sestak and Toomey, a conservative Republican, have been tag-teaming their common foe, Specter, with attacks from a distance. Both have sought to portray the party-switching Specter as a politician without any steadfast principles, willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.
Specter was not invited to last night's event. "I look forward to returning to the Capitol next week and speaking to my colleagues about trying to pass a health-care reform bill," Specter said in a statement released by his campaign.
The idea of the encounter grew from competing news releases from the Toomey and Specter campaigns on health care, particularly their disagreement over the idea of a government-run insurance plan - the "public option" - to compete with private insurance. Sestak suggested a face-to-face meeting in Toomey's hometown, with voters asking questions.
Specter has changed his position on the public option, saying in May that he was opposed to it. He has since said he would support it if it were subject to the same regulations as private health plans.
In August, Specter defended the president's reform goals in a series of fiery town-hall meetings.
After last night's debate, Sestak and Toomey headed to Allentown Brew Works. "The beer's on me," Toomey said.