U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-District 7) is in the fight of his political life, and he hopes that his credentials on national security — in several years, he could become chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services — and his longtime service to Delaware County can carry him to an 11th term in Congress.
But Democrats think they've found an answer to the Republican's national-security chip in Joe Sestak, a 54-year-old retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy who served as the director of defense policy in the Clinton White House. In his standard stump speech, he often waxes poetic about the values instilled by the military, including its emphasis on making health care and education accessible.
Mirroring the national debate between the parties on Iraq and the war on terror, these two candidates disagree sharply on how the military should best be used.
Weldon, 59, often described as hawkish, has criticized President George W. Bush for his handling of the war in Iraq, but maintains it was a war the country needed to fight, and must continue fighting. Sestak — who served during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — has called the Iraq war a "misadventure" that took resources away from rebuilding Afghanistan and securing American ports, railroads and transportation.
"I believe there needs to be a deliberate timetable for U.S. redeployment by at least the end of 2007, in order to have a more secure America and a more secure world," said Sestak.
Weldon argues that, in terms of support for the Jewish state, he's the better candidate.
"From the standpoint of security, there isn't anybody who's been as active for the defense of Israel as I have," said Weldon. "If anyone were to call the Israeli-embassy in Washington and ask who the top two or three members of Congress was, you would hear Congressman Curt Weldon."
And despite the fact that the 7th district has fewer Jewish voters than the neighboring suburban district — the 6th — Weldon's campaign has been trying hard to link his opponent to anti-Israel activists.
In August, the campaign issued a press release that Sestak's camp had accepted $1,000 in contributions from a political-action committee known as Citizens for Global Solutions. The release claimed that the PAC's head, Drew J. Arson, had used his personal blog to rail against Israel's actions in Lebanon.
Sestak spokesman Ryan Rudominer called the release a "nonstory," and said that Global Solutions has given to dozens of house members, including U.S. Rep Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who is a Holocaust survivor known as a staunch pro-Israel advocate.
And then just last week, Weldon's campaign criticized Sestak's Sept. 16 fundraiser with Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the United Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Edgar has been consistently critical of Israeli policies.
Rudominer said that Edgar's position did not come up during the fundraiser, and that the event focused on domestic issues.
Appearing at a Sept. 17 Men's Club breakfast at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, Sestak said that he supported Israel's right to defend itself.
"We should never associate with the Hamas government as long as they plan to wipe Israel off the map," said Sestak, adding that there must be a way to bypass the Palestinian government to provide humanitarian funding to the territories.
Critics of such an approach point out that groups such as the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Agency are often staffed by Hamas supporters or members.
Said Sestak: "They are human beings there. [But] their government is wrong and bad."