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Congressman Joe Sestak speaks at a town hall meeting at the Hall of Flags.

Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate primary may not be until May 18, but Democratic candidate Joe Sestak isn’t wasting any time getting his message out to students.

At an event last night in Houston Hall, Sestak — who has represented the state’s seventh district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007 — answered questions from students on issues ranging from healthcare reform to the war in Iraq.

The event was one of a series of “kitchen calls” the candidate has been holding across the state as part of his campaign. The name comes from Sestak’s time as an admiral in the Navy when he held “kitchen calls” to listen to sailors’ complaints.

When asked how he thought the Democrats’ loss of a Mass. Senate seat in last week’s special election would affect healthcare reform legislation, Sestak said he believes a bill will still pass — though it may be a slightly watered-down version of the original.

Regardless of the challenges the legislation faces, “we have to do something,” he said, “because 14,000 Americans lose their health care every day.”

Sestak also stressed the major differences between himself and current Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, his opponent in the Democratic primary.

He said Specter has voted in line with former President George W. Bush’s policies “over 2,000 times” and has only recently switched his views on several key issues. Sestak cited the Defense of Marriage Act, which Specter supported in 1996 but recently spoke out against, as an example.

Sestak added that Specter “would do anything to keep [his] job,” referring to Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat last April.

In this year’s race, Sestak said, people are looking for someone they can “look … in the eye and say, ‘Can I trust that guy?’”

A Rasmussen poll from last week shows Sestak trailing Specter, with 32 percent to 53 percent of voter support respectively.

Sestak acknowledged his status as an underdog in this year’s race, saying his biggest issue is name recognition.

One audience member said he worried the candidate is “not forceful enough” to win against Specter this spring or against Republican Pat Toomey in the fall.

“I am who I am,” Sestak responded, citing his decision to stay in the race after Specter switched parties last spring as proof of his “courage.”

College sophomore and Penn Democrats President Emma Ellman-Golan called the event a success.

“Since our members got to meet Arlen Specter last semester, it’s great that they got to meet Joe Sestak,” she said.

Penn Dems do not plan to endorse a Senate candidate in this spring’s primary, Ellman-Golan said.

College junior Jason Goodman said Sestak was a “commanding speaker,” and, as a Philadelphia native, he approved of Sestak’s plans for the state.

“Everything he stands for is what our state needs,” Goodman said.

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