Even as the three Republican candidates for the 9th House District hewed close to the party line on some issues at their Friday debate in Altoona, their answers highlighted divisions in the purpose and meaning of government itself.
While the three candidates - incumbent Rep. Bill Shuster of Hollidaysburg, Art Halvorson of Manns Choice and Travis Schooley of Franklin County - seemed to agree on matters of Republican faith like abortion and Obamacare, they openly argued when it came to the party's record and Shuster's 13 years in Congress.
"We need people who will stand up to the establishment and not join them," Halvorson, a Coast Guard veteran and real estate developer, told the crowd of more than 300 at the Devorris Downtown Center. Halvorson, who has ramped up his campaign with TV ads this week, accused Shuster of carrying on an insufficiently conservative family dynasty.
The political memory of Shuster's father, veteran representative Bud Shuster, loomed large Friday: Indeed, the elder Shuster, 82, sat in the front row, feet away as his son hailed I-99 among the family's crowning political achievements. It was a defense of Congress' local benefits against two challengers who have criticized the family for supposed big spending and backroom dealing.
Bill Shuster glanced at the moderators Friday as Halvorson repeated prior claims that the incumbent has voted 10 times to fund Obamacare. The two repeated old criticisms, with Shuster painting Halvorson as an ill-informed carpetbagger and Halvorson tying Shuster to what he considers a weak-willed Republican House leadership.
"I'm proud of the record I've established as a proven conservative," Shuster said in his opening statement. "Actions speak louder than words."
Questioned on issues including foreign policy, student debt and energy by a panel of two newspaper figures and a Penn State Altoona instructor, the three broadly agreed on a well-funded military, encouraging employment and the power of fossil fuels. Pressed to provide specifics on alternatives to Obamacare, all settled on a "market-based" solution.
None backed a minimum wage increase, an issue pressed recently by congressional Democrats but with little support among Republicans. Schooley blamed both Shusters for contributing to an economy that forces American workers to compete with cheaper labor overseas.
"I do take issue with both Bill's father and Bill for being part of that process. We have lost thousands of jobs overseas," he said, citing free trade agreements with developing nations.
Shuster cheerfully noted that his father voted against the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
The two challengers, who identify more closely with the style of the tea party movement, have questioned the role of government in promoting business. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, defended the government's role in building highways - including the one that bears his father's name.
Halvorson and Shuster, who have traded harsh accusations in advertisements, social media and interviews, sparred repeatedly Friday. Halvorson supporters laughed when Shuster accused the challenger of having "run his whole campaign on baseless attacks."
"Mr. Halvorson is not from here," Shuster reminded the crowd in his closing statement as he held up his father's decades of political service. In comments after the debate, Halvorson - who has questioned the need for federal involvement in transportation, the family's political strength - criticized Shuster for calling on his father's record as he sat nearby.
"Bringing your dad and your mom to try to intimidate people or bringing up the glory days, quote unquote, is just shameful," he said.
In the debate's last moments, he gestured toward the elder Shuster and reminded him that, however much he criticizes the family's record, it's "not a personal thing."
Afterward, as the candidates mingled with crowds of supporters sporting T-shirts and stickers, Bud Shuster spoke proudly of the legislative record his son had just defended.
Asked whether he takes the criticism of his family's work personally, he answered: "Oh, hell no."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.