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New ads, fresh sparring in Pa. Senate campaign

The candidates in Pennsylvania's hot Senate race touted new endorsements Tuesday and skirmished over Social Security and health care as a fresh batch of attack ads hit the airwaves with three weeks left until the general election.

Republican Pat Toomey appeared with members of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association in suburban Harrisburg to accept its endorsement. Democrat Joe Sestak received the endorsement of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans.

Also Tuesday, the Sestak campaign unveiled two TV ads that criticize Toomey's support for privatizing Social Security, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began running its fourth TV ad of the campaign. The ad faulted Sestak's vote for a bill that is "an unfair scheme to grow unions" — the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow a majority of employees to form a union by signing a card instead of holding a secret ballot vote.

The Chamber's ad did not mention that both it and Sestak supported the bailouts of banks and automakers, as well as the economic stimulus package. One of Sestak's ads made the puzzling claim that Toomey — a former derivatives trader, restaurateur and head of the free-market advocacy group Club for Growth — "has represented Wall Street his entire life."

Toomey also was a U.S. representative from the Allentown area from 1999 to 2005. Sestak is a former Navy admiral from suburban Philadelphia who is giving up the U.S. House seat he has held for almost four years to run for Senate. The men are competing to replace five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, whom Sestak beat in the May Democratic primary.

So far, Toomey leads in polls, fundraising and assistance from outside allies, such as the Chamber, that spend money on TV ads and other things to influence elections. The election is Nov. 2.

The National Rifle Association also began chiming in on television and radio in recent days to attack Sestak, accusing him in vague terms of advancing a radical agenda to take away Second Amendment rights.

The Troopers Association said it endorsed Toomey partly because he co-sponsored legislation to address a perceived inequity in the Social Security benefits of public-sector employees.

"This was a basic question of fairness, and when we needed Pat, he was there fighting to make (sure) police officers were fairly treated," said Bruce Edwards, president of the 8,000-member association.

The Sestak campaign responded that Sestak also supported such a step and co-sponsored the "Social Security Fairness Act." Edwards said Toomey contacted the group for an endorsement, while Sestak did not. The Alliance for Retired Americans, which claims 3 million members, is affiliated with another Sestak backer, the AFL-CIO.

Both Sestak and the alliance oppose the privatization of Social Security, saying it is a boon for stock brokerages but risks the nation's retirement fallback in unpredictable securities markets.

"If that money had been invested in Wall Street (during the recession), we would have had 20 million seniors in this country move into poverty," Sestak said on a conference call Tuesday.

Toomey advocates changing Social Security to allow younger workers to put a portion of their payroll tax into private, managed investment accounts. He acknowledges such a shift would require borrowing money initially, but he maintains that it will lower Social Security's longer-term costs and extend its solvency.

Toomey, who opposes much of President Barack Obama's agenda, criticized the new federal health care law that passed in March as an unaffordable and intrusive behemoth that raises a half-trillion dollars in taxes over a decade.

"I've argued consistently throughout this campaign that we ought to go in a different direction on the health care bill," Toomey said Tuesday. "We ought to repeal and replace it with a set of common-sense reforms that will lower costs and improve access without jeopardizing existing coverage, without bankrupting our country, without massive tax increases."

Sestak said repealing the health care bill would reopen the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in the Medicare prescription benefit, remove preventive care requirements for insurance plans, such as for mammograms and cholesterol screenings, and get rid of measures to extend Medicare's solvency.

"He wants to take that away," Sestak said.

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