Eighth District Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack and Democrat Rick Nolan debated for the first time Tuesday in Duluth.
The two sparred over Medicare, taxes and foreign policy. Cravaack is trying to win a second term in the northeastern Minnesota district, while Nolan is trying to make a political comeback by returning to Congress after having served three decades ago.
In stark contrast to the millions of dollars worth of stinging TV ads and glossy campaign mailings that have characterized the 8th District race so far, the tone of Cravaack and Nolan's first face-to-face meeting was cordial. Still, the two candidates outlined very different approaches to addressing the nation's problems.
"This election contest offers us a real clear choice," Nolan said.
Nolan began by emphasizing his northern Minnesota roots and criticizing Cravaack's voting record.
"Congressman Cravaack has voted repeatedly to end Medicare as we know it, increasing costs for our elderly. Congressman Cravaack has voted numerous times to increase military spending while cutting domestic spending," Nolan said.
Cravaack defended himself.
"I took the same principles I used as a naval officer to Congress: protect the country, preserve the constitution," Cravaack said.
Cravaack underscored the financial crisis facing the nation and said his support for lower taxes and fewer regulations is the best path to prosperity.
"While I know that both of us truly want what's best for the 8th District and what's best for the nation, we have a very divergent way of how to get there," Cravaack said. "I believe that more government and more regulations is not the answer."
Medicare has been a focus of the campaign, with Nolan accusing Cravaack of voting to dismantle the government health care system for seniors and Cravaack accusing Nolan of having no plan to address its future insolvency.
Nolan noted Cravaack's vote for Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, calling it a "voucher" plan. Cravaack disputed that label and noted Clinton administration Democrats came up with the idea.
"Our plan, the bipartisan House plan, is a plan that gives our seniors options, through a premium support model — there are no vouchers," Cravaack said.
But Nolan maintained that Cravaack is out to scrap, not save Medicare.
"That's the way it is," Cravaack said. "We can spin this all we want but at the end of the day the record is what the record is and I am as strong a supporter of Medicare and Social Security in the Democratic Party as you will ever find."
MIDDLE CLASS SUPPORT
The two candidates also offered competing philosophies about how to best help the middle class. Nolan said the Republican argument against tax increases for the wealthy is hollow.
"The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is getting crushed," Nolan said. "I don't mind telling you, as a businessman, you can give me tax breaks all you want from now until kingdom come and I'll say thank you."
Nolan said even with tax breaks, businesses won't expand unless they have growing markets. He said helping the middle class is the best way to expand markets.
Cravaack defended voting to cut taxes and regulations and said that's the best way to create jobs and increase consumer spending.
"When you incentivize the small business owners, they get the confidence to expand and create jobs," Cravaack said. "That is the key to creating jobs and therefore when you create those jobs you create the demand that Congressman Nolan was talking about."
Both Cravaack and Nolan talked about their support for expanded mining. Cravaack cited legislation he pushed through the House to streamline permitting and to mandate the use of American steel in federal construction projects.
Nolan repeatedly called for reduced military spending and used phrases such as "wars of choice," to make his point.
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Cravaack objected to Nolan's characterization.
"The wars of choice [as] you call it, sir, are in response to 9/11 where over 3,000 Americans were killed. Now I believe in protecting the United States. We didn't look for this fight. It came to our shore and that's a response to 9/11 and Americans being killed," he said.
Nolan held his ground and said the U.S. spends too much money nation building around the world.
"I know a little bit about the world as well," Nolan replied. "I don't know if you're aware of it but it wasn't Iraq that attacked the United States. It was al-Qaeda and we crushed them in Afghanistan as we should."
30-YEAR-OLD VOTING RECORDS
Asked what could be done to get beyond partisan bickering in Washington, Nolan said members of Congress need to spend more time on the job.
"You know the Congress has to go to work five days a week like everybody else in America, and when you do that you start getting to know one and other, you develop respect for one and other," Nolan said.
"I find it a little ironic that the congressman is saying what our work schedule is," countered Cravaack.
Cravaack criticized Nolan over his three terms in Congress more than 30 years ago.
"Four out of the six years you were in Congress you voted yourself a pay raise, you increased your pay by 50 percent and, at the same time you missed 30 percent of your votes," Cravaack said.
Nolan accused Cravaack of "cherry picking" his record. He said he missed procedural votes, not votes about issues of consequence. He said the pay raises were necessary to make it possible for people like himself to serve in Congress.
Despite the aggressive positioning, Nolan and Cravaack remained respectful throughout and they shook hands at least three times as their first debate wrapped up.
The two meet for three more debates between now and Election Day.