The two major candidates for US Senate, Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown, faced off tonight in their first debate of the special election, squabbling over health care, climate change, and the effectivness of Ronald Regan's presidency.
Coakley, who came out on Sunday in support of the US Senate compromise on health care, defended her position. She had voiced reluctant support for the plan even though it contains some restrictions on abortion, which she opposes, and does not feature a government health plan, which she wanted.
"I'm very disappointed by this bill. It does a lot of good stuff, though," she said. "If the goal of health care reform is getting people covered and getting costs down, I think the Senate bill is an effective first step ... We're going to have incremental progress."
During the Democratic primary, Coakley opposed a House version of the bill, on the grounds that it restricted abortion coverage. The Senate plan, she said, differed enough to be acceptable.
But Brown lambasted Coakley over her support for the Senate proposal, accusing her of shifting her position for the general election.
"During the primary Martha basically took a principled decision, and I commended her for that," he said. "But she's already abandoned that principle."
The debate, which also included independent candidate Joseph L. Kennedy, was broadcast on WBZ radio. It came in the final week of campaigning before the Christmas and New Year's holidays take voters' attention away from the race to fill the seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy. The special election is Jan. 19.
Coakley, the attorney general, and Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, previously had tangled only from afar, criticizing one another's positions through press releases, campaign representatives, and, in Brown's case, Internet ads.
From the beginning, Brown sought to differentiate himself from Coakley, which at times was difficult with Kennedy sitting at the same table.
"Itís important for people to recognize the difference between me and Martha," Brown said at the beginning.
"And Joe Kennedy," said Dan Rea, who hosted the show.
"Of course," Brown replied. "And Joe."
But the hourlong radio debate was far more confrontational than previous outings that Coakley had with her Democratic primary rivals. Brown repeatedly went after her, and she pounced back.
"When Scott says Martha this, Martha that, Iíd like a chance to answer my own questions," she said at one point.
"People are looking for change," Brown said, referring to the state's all-Democrat Congressional delegation. "We have 12 people down there now that are all the same."
The candidates also continued their disagreement over President Obamaís plan to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Coakley opposes the plan; Brown supports it.
"I support the troops, and Martha keeps talking about the costs," Brown said. "The cost to me that is more important in lives we can save."
"Scottís going to be in Afghanistan forever then," Coakley said a minute later.
"Thatís not accurate, and itís disingenuous," Brown responded. "Her president of her own party believes that this is the mission."
Brown has tried to say Coakley would merely be a "rubber stamp" if she were in the Senate. But she turned the argument around tonight, saying that her stance on Afghanistan illustrated her independence.
"I wonít be a rubber stamp," Coakley said. "I disagree with the president and I'm happy to say that I do."
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