KALISPELL - Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg jousted over a suite of familiar issues Sunday night as Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, joining the fray for his first debate this season, added his less-conventional brand of political ideology to the mix.
The three Senate candidates touched on a broad range of issues throughout the 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake and held at Flathead Valley Community College before a capacity crowd of 300 people. It was the third of four debates scheduled for Tester and Rehberg this year; it will be broadcast on PBS on Wednesday.
Tester and Rehberg, Montana's lone Republican congressman since 2000, are locked in one of the tightest Senate races in the country, and mostly ignored Cox as a non-contender, instead taking aim at each other's records.
Health care, economic development, federal stimulus spending, jobs, the estate tax, campaign reform, and the national deficit were all issues that figured prominently into the debate, with the candidates locking horns and finding points of contention at every turn.
Tester defended the $787 billion stimulus spending as critical at a time when the country was hemorrhaging jobs and spiraling toward a depression, while Rehberg criticized it as a failure.
Tester said the spending was a step in the right direction as it built infrastructure and created jobs, which would be his No. 1 priority if re-elected. Appealing to a crowd of Flathead Valley residents, the senator from Big Sandy pointed to the ongoing construction of the Kalispell bypass and the rehabilitation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road as projects enabled by the stimulus package.
"We're still not where we need to be. But it was a step in the right direction to help us move forward," he said. "We couldn't sit back and do nothing."
Rehberg called his opponent fiscally irresponsible, and drew again and again on Tester's record of aligning with the administration of President Barack Obama.
"I didn't vote for it then and I wouldn't vote for it now," Rehberg said of the stimulus bill. "It didn't create jobs. You don't spend a trillion dollars and hope to create an asset. It's an expense, not an asset. The stimulus failed. Where are the jobs?"
Tester fired back that Rehberg inherited an economic surplus when he was elected to office in 2000 - a surfeit that was gobbled up by a pair of wars, tax cuts, and prescription drug help for seniors, all of which Rehberg supported.
"If you want to talk about a long history of not being fiscally responsible, of not being responsible period, the congressman needs to look in the mirror," Tester said.
Accusing Tester of voting along with Obama 95 percent of the time, Rehberg portrayed the senator as a presidential clone whose uniform support for the administration led to "Obamacare," or the Affordable Health Care Act.
"He was the 60th vote," Rehberg said. "We wouldn't have Obamacare without the senator's support."
The oft-quoted "95 percent" figure prompted Tester to turn toward and address his wife, who was seated in the audience: "I've been married to you for 35 years and I don't agree with you 95 percent of the time."
"Your 95 percent figure is crazy," Tester told Rehberg, offering instances where he disagreed with the administration by supporting the Keystone XL pipeline and legislation to remove wolves from the endangered species list.
Cox, meanwhile, offered hard-line Libertarian solutions to every question posed during the debate, saying he would fight government intrusion and support broader states' rights.
"We hear over and over that Rehberg is a problem and that Tester is a problem," Cox said. "I am going to agree with both of them. These guys are only talking about nibbling at the edges of proposed spending. If you want to get real, you need to vote Libertarian."
Tester touted his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which he said aims to increase logging and wilderness, and defended the health care bill from Rehberg's attack, particularly as it offers help for those with pre-existing conditions and the uninsured.
"To listen to the congressman talk you'd think the old system was just grand," Tester said.
Rehberg attacked Tester for letting down business groups who needed help dealing with burdensome environmental regulations. As a result, Rehberg blamed Tester for the closure of a coal-fired power plant near Billings. Tester countered that plant owner PPL Montana could pay for the environmental upgrades without compromising its profits.
Tester and Rehberg are scheduled to square off for a fourth and final debate Saturday night in Bozeman.