Toomey, in fact, dodged a question a question from moderator George Stephanopoulos when he asked if Palin was qualified to be President, which Sestak noted gleefully in a post-debate question-and-answer session with reporters. Palin is deeply unpopular among the independent voters who are critical to Toomey's chances.
Sestak's performance was far stronger than his previous debates against Toomey, held while he was running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter. In those debates, Sestak regularly stumbled through his remarks and struggled to land sharp blows against his opponent. But Toomey withstood some early punches from Sestak and began scoring points of his own as the debate wore on, particularly when discussing the economy.
The debate's timing came just as prognosticators both in Pennsylvania and nationally have dramatically re-assessed Sestak's chances, thought for months to be lagging. A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Tracking poll released Tuesday showed Sestak holding a three-point edge over Toomey, the first non-partisan survey to show the Democrat ahead. The Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling also released a poll Tuesday that reported Sestak ahead by one point.
The surveys are a startling departure from polls taken through the summer and early fall, nearly all of which said Toomey sported a six to eight point lead. Strategists point to a barrage of aggressive ads from Sestak, which have included allegations Toomey would outsource jobs to China and linked him to Sarah Palin, as the primary reason Sestak has suddenly closed the gap.
Unlike many other races across the country, this contest had -- up to this point -- remained civil and focused on the issues. But with the polls tightening, the debate took a contentious turn. Toomey said Sestak's position on abortion is the one out of step with voters because he voted for taxpayer-funded abortions when he supported the health care bill.
"I voted against taxpayer funding abortions," Sestak said, before Toomey abruptly interrupted him.
"You did not ... you're being dishonest, Joe," Toomey said.
Sestak retorted, "Congressman Toomey, I voted against it."
Social Security, like in many races, has been a source of constant discussion in the Senate race. Toomey has opened himself up to criticism on the issue because he supports giving young people the option to opt-out of the social program -- a position often characterized as privatization, although Toomey vehemently rejects that label.
Twenty million seniors would have moved into poverty if Toomey's plan was in place during the economic crisis, Sestak said.
"Look, he thinks all the answers are found on Wall Street," said Sestak, echoing what is probably the dominant theme of his campaign. "I want to keep our Social Security solvent and safe.
Toomey tried to turn the argument on its head against Sestak, saying the enormous amount of debt created by policies Sestak supported is the true threat to Social Security. The former Lehigh Valley congressman, who mentioned his elderly parents received Social Security, emphasized that he would never reduce existing benefits for eligible seniors and wants to ensure future generations also receive benefits.
"The real jeopardy to Social Security is the reckless spending of Joe Sestak ... Interest-service on this debt alone is going to jeopardize our ability to honor that commitment, and that's outrageous," Toomey said.
The two candidates meet for their final debate Friday in Pittsburgh.