KANSAS CITY — The political rancor between Republican Congressman Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan continued at the candidates' first debate Thursday, the only one of this election cycle to be televised.
Sharing a room for the first time as opponents in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, the two staked out their divergent policy positions while doing their best to paint the other as unfit to serve.
"Do we live in a country where the people are bigger than the government or a country where the government is bigger than the people?" Blunt asked in his opening remarks, setting the stage for a point of attack to which he'd return: Carnahan is a free-spending, big-government liberal.
Carnahan agreed that the federal deficit is a serious problem and said she'd tackle it by cracking down on no-bid contracts, earmarks and re-instituting pay-as-you-go rules where increases in spending must be offset by equivalent decreases in services or tax increases.
She countered Blunt's criticism by saying the budget deficit is a bipartisan problem, noting that the budget went from a surplus to a deficit during Blunt's time in the House majority.
The two continued to battle over government spending, with Blunt complaining that last year's economic stimulus program was a waste of taxpayers' money and asking voters to look at his attempts to fight mandatory spending programs, where he says "the real spending occurs."
With the exception of veterans programs, "there's no federal government program I haven't tried to reform financially," Blunt said.
Carnahan, trailing in the polls, went after Blunt hard, painting him as a creature of Washington, out of touch with Missourians' values and beholden to special interests.
"I've been in Jefferson City while Congressman Blunt has been in Washington," Carnahan said. "He's been there for 14 years."
During their back-and-forth over wasteful spending, Carnahan accused Blunt of pushing through earmarks for political contributors. Blunt denied ever trading earmarks for contributions and defended his record by saying his efforts brought needed money back to Missouri, pointing to federally funded highway and bridge improvements in the state.
The debate, held at the studios of KCPT, Kansas City's public television station, was recorded during the morning and scheduled for broadcast on television later Thursday night. A second and final debate is scheduled for Friday in Lake Ozark.
Blunt repeatedly asserted that the government needs to do more to create private sector jobs.
"Government jobs don't pay the bills," the congressman said. "They are the bills."
He mocked Carnahan for a lack of specifics on job creation, saying in reference to Twitter, "You could tweet her jobs plan in four tweets."
For her part, Carnahan accused Blunt of supporting tax breaks for companies that "send jobs overseas."
The two also clashed over the issue of health care reform.
Carnahan asked Blunt to "man up" and drop his own government-sponsored health insurance before repealing the new health care law.
"If you want to repeal health care and let insurance companies go back to their worst abuses, congressman, then repeal your own first and man up and do what you ask of other people to do," said Carnahan.
"We simply can't afford it," Blunt said of the new health care law.
He said he wanted to go back to the drawing board and tackle the issue in a less expensive — and expansive — manner. Carnahan accused Blunt of opposing the law to benefit health insurance companies that had contributed to his campaign. Blunt in turn accused Democrats of blocking efforts at tort reform to protect trial lawyers who have donated money to Democrats, including Carnahan.
Each candidate attempted to portray the other as a threat to senior citizens.
"It's her side that has made the cuts in senior programs," Blunt said, singling out President Barack Obama's efforts to phase out Medicare Advantage plans. He also claimed the health care law enacted earlier this year will be funded with $500 billion in cuts to Medicare.
Carnahan accused Blunt of trying to privatize Social Security during his tenure in Washington. Blunt steadfastly denied the charge, saying he urged then-President George W. Bush to move cautiously with his 2005 privatization plan.
In response to a question about the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Blunt, who voted for TARP in September of 2008, said he still supported the measure, arguing it staved off economic collapse. He also noted the bill has largely been paid back over the last 18 months.
"Hopefully, we'll never get back in that situation again," said the congressman, who pointed out statements made by Carnahan suggesting she also supported the intervention at the time.
Carnahan said, "It made a great difference for Wall Street," but argued it failed to help the broad economy, particularly the mortgage crisis. She criticized Blunt for "hobnobbing" with Wall Street bankers and said that she had a record of standing up for Missouri consumers.
"If we keep sending folks like you back to Washington, (the big banks) are going to keep getting bailed out," she said.
The two sparred over who was the true reformer in the race.
Carnahan said she supports a lifetime ban to prevent members of Congress from becoming lobbyists.
Blunt accused Carnahan of badly mischaracterizing the amount of money he received from lobbyists and noted that she had received tens of thousands of dollars in lobbyists' money from Democratic senators. But the secretary of state continued to hammer Blunt.
"He's carried water for them, year after year in Washington," she said, referring to lobbyists.
Blunt said that climate change is real but said he didn't know to what extent it was caused by human activity. He stressed he was in favor of obtaining energy from renewable sources, while maintaining his total opposition to any cap-and-trade energy bill, claiming such a measure would cause utility bills to increase 80 percent in the first decade while eliminating jobs.
"I am not for penalizing the current economy to grow a new economy," Blunt said.
Carnahan, explaining her opposition to tax subsidies for large oil companies, argued that America's dependence on foreign oil threatens national security by lining the pockets of "foreign oil dictators."
After the debate, aides from the candidates' respective camps claimed victory.
"What you saw today is a Roy Blunt who's talking about issues, talking about the ideas and talking about the things that are important to Missourians," said Ann Wagner, chairman of Blunt's Senate campaign. "Once again we've seen from Robin Carnahan the same thing we've seen over the past 20 months, which are personal attacks."
"We're going to stay focused like we always have, but I think Congressman Blunt really hasn't been answering these questions, and so this is a defining moment for him to come out there and tell folks," said Carnahan Communications Director Rachel Barinbaum. "(Carnahan) went up there and she held Congressman Blunt accountable for his record."