For the better part of an hour-and-a-half, the moderator of a debate between U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-District 8) and the man who formerly held the Bucks County seat, Republican Michael Fitzpatrick, tried in vain to get the raucous crowd of 600 to settle down.
The audience on Sunday greeted each candidate with football-like chants of "Murphy" and "Mike" as they entered the sanctuary at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown and made their way toward the bimah. Then, as the two candidates responded to questions on jobs, tax policy, Social Security, health care, campaign finance and immigration, members of the audience either cheered or jeered, depending on their allegiance, with some shouting comments like, "That's not true!"
At one point, an official with the League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the event with Shir Ami's Men's Club, threatened to terminate the proceedings if the decorum was not restored.
When the adversaries faced off four years ago, the race focused on Iraq and foreign affairs. This time, it's about jobs and the economy.
"I'm getting tired of hitting this microphone stand," Jody Bender said, appearing more like a judge trying to bring her court to order than a moderator.
Toward the conclusion of the debate, Bender asked a series of questions about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Iranian threat and the war in Afghanistan. The audience fell virtually silent, ending the cheerleading and running commentary.
Shifting of Focus
The contrasting reaction only seemed to drive home what has become increasingly apparent this election season: The focus, even among Jewish voters, is on the economy and the unemployment rate, which stood at 9.6 percent at the end of August.
"This election is about jobs, jobs, jobs," stated Al Greenland, a Shir Ami member who has been retired for 20 years, but said that building a green-technology workforce is key to the future of the country. Supporters of both candidates largely agreed with that pronouncement, even as they disagreed about how to make it a reality.
This emphasis marks a huge change from the last time these two faced off four years ago, when the election was largely viewed as a referendum on the war in Iraq: Murphy, a veteran of the conflict, ran on an anti-war platform.
In that race, Murphy, a political neophyte, squeaked by Fitzpatrick, a one-term incumbent, with 116,669 votes to Fitzpatrick's 115,645.
Passions ran high as hundreds packed inside the Bucks synagogue.
This time around, the voting could very well go the other way. A Franklin & Marshall survey released last month showed Fitzpatrick with a commanding 49 percent to 35 percent lead among likely voters. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, Murphy has raised $2.6 million to Fitzpatrick's $925,000.
Fighting for his job, Murphy, a 36-year-old Northeast Philadelphia native, is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party and an ally of President Barack Obama. He has forged solid ties to the Jewish community, with regular stops at synagogues and communal events.
He often speaks about carrying a picture of Michael Levin, a young man from Bucks County who made aliyah and was then killed in the Second Lebanon War. He met Levin's parents at a pro-Israel rally in 2006, days before their son died.
Fitzpatrick, a 47-year-old former Bucks County Commissioner, was considered a pro-Israel lawmaker during his only term in Congress, from 2004 to 2006. And in his failed re-election bid, he tried to make Israel an issue.
At that time, the congressman said at a news conference at the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley that he was the more ardently pro-Israel candidate, and that he — and not Murphy — would back Israel's right to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran.
Murphy showed up at that conference and insisted that he, in fact, held the same view.
At Sunday's debate, both responded "yes" when asked if they supported the prospect of military action against Iran, though Fitzpatrick said that it should only be a last option. It wasn't clear if the question referred to potential action by America or Israel.
Have Policies Worked?
A major point of contention during the debate focused on who was more to blame for the current economic malaise: the 43rd or the 44th president?
Fitzpatrick charged that while Murphy has been in Congress, the unemployment rate has risen as the Democrats have approved massive spending while driving up the deficit.
Murphy, who was on the attack throughout, said that Fitzpatrick had gone along with Bush's plan to privatize Social Security and the idea to go to war in Iraq, which has added to the country's debt.
"I'm doing everything in my power to bring jobs back to Bucks County. That's what we need. What we don't need is a return to the same, failed Bush-Fitzpatrick economic policies," said Murphy.
Fitzpatrick retorted: "Our economy has not recovered in spite of massive government spending, which will eventually lead to higher taxes. Now if you listen to Congressman Murphy here today, all that is a result of my two-year service in the United States Congress."
Rather, Fitzpatrick said, the fault lies with Obama's policies, especially the stimulus bill and the new health care law. "Those policies have not worked," he asserted.
When the issue of immigration arose, Murphy said, in a break from Democratic thinking, that he stood against his own party and supported the controversial Arizona law that gives police broad power to detain individuals suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Fitzpatrick, who also supports the law, has done so because he said that the federal government has not adequately addressed the issue of undocumented immigrants in border states.
The three questions that dealt with the Middle East were asked toward the end of the forum. When pressed on the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian discussions, Fitzpatrick stated that he's for the two-state solution, but fears that Israel has been overpressured in this latest process.
"There is only so much we can ask from one side," he said, referring to the Jewish state.
Murphy ignored the Palestinian issue altogether and shifted his response instead to the Iranian threat, touting his support for stricter sanctions enacted earlier this year.
"Israel has an absolute right to defend itself," he said. "It is a sovereign nation."