PHOENIXVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Four Republican candidates vying for the nomination to challenge Democrat Bob Casey’s re-election bid to the U.S. Senate barely disagreed with each other at a suburban Philadelphia forum, although some sparks flew as they worked to distinguish themselves from each other with less than three months until the primary election.

The size of the deficit and the reach of the federal government were key topics that the candidates spent much of the 80-minute forum answering questions about from an audience of more than 200. A Tea Party-aligned group organized the event, and calls to defeat President Barack Obama drew louder applause than calls to defeat Casey.

All four candidates agreed at the outset of the forum in a Phoenixville meeting hall that they would vote to repeal Obama’s signature health care law — nicknamed “Obamacare” by critics — and to eliminate funding for or dramatically scale back the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Energy and Education.

A straw vote at the end of the night heavily favored former Berks County state Rep. Sam Rohrer, who lives about 20 miles away. The primary is April 24.

Tom Smith of Armstrong County, who made a fortune in coal mining, leads the money race. He has invested $5 million of his own money into his campaign — while Chester County entrepreneur Steve Welch has invested $1 million of his money and will have the benefit of the state party’s organizational and financial backing as the party favorite.

Throughout the forum, Rohrer, Smith, Welch, and Cumberland County lawyer and former U.S. Senate aide Marc Scaringi tried to burnish their credentials as a regular person and a Washington outsider.

“I spent my whole life sitting where you’re sitting,” Smith told the audience. “I’m just an old farm boy that got misplaced in the coal fields and did well.”

Scaringi told the audience he’s the son of a traveling salesman who knew there’d be no paycheck at the end of the month if he didn’t sell furniture, and now must make payroll for 17 employees every two weeks at his suburban Harrisburg law firm. Welch, who started a company that makes valves and other components for the biotech industry, admitted to being a geek who loves to know how things work and make them better.

“It is true, I’m the nerd in the race,” he said.

Rohrer, who served 18 years in the state House until 2010, stressed his experience in standing up to party leaders and special interests, a theme that played neatly into a recurring theme during the forum of the contentious party endorsement of Welch the previous weekend.

“What you have felt in the twist of your arm to get a vote for a candidate preferred by a few people is what Washington is all about,” Rohrer said. “When individuals, by their own testimony, are threatened with loss of jobs, if they do not, it is just like Washington.”

He did not mention names, although he and others have said that Gov. Tom Corbett went to unusual lengths to persuade state committee members to vote for Welch.

Asked for a response, state GOP executive director Mike Barley said later it is not uncommon for candidates to seek the endorsement, but later oppose it once they don’t receive the party’s support.

“The truth is that the committee was eager to support a candidate in the U.S. Senate race who wasn’t a career politician, who has a strong record of creating jobs in the private sector and will take the fight to Senator Casey this fall and win this race,” Barley wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “That is why the Republican Party of Pennsylvania overwhelmingly voted to endorse Steve Welch.”

Scaringi also criticized the process, drawing applause when he said that the Republican Party leadership should not pick the party’s candidate to challenge Casey.

“You’ve got to send the right person to Washington, D.C., who can stare down the special interest groups, who can stare down the party bosses and look them in the eyes and tell them, ‘I am my own man, I’m not going to do your bidding,'” Scaringi said.

Welch did not respond to the criticism, but did not back down during two disagreements with Scaringi during the debate. He defended free trade agreements under Obama with Panama, South Korea and Colombia that Casey voted against. While Welch said the agreements would open up new markets for U.S. goods, Scaringi said he’d have voted against them, and criticized them as ways for other countries to dump cheap goods in the United States and undercut the country’s manufacturers.

They also disagreed on the wisdom of returning to the gold standard, a pet issue of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas.

Scaringi advocated returning to the gold standard and said abandoning it had devalued the dollar. But Welch bluntly disagreed, saying that government spending more than it brings in causes inflation and that inflation cycles occurred even when governments were on the gold standard.

“That doesn’t square with me,” he said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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