Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Meeting for their final debate of the US Senate campaign, Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley tonight tried to capitalize on voters' fears, with Brown raising the specter of another terrorist attack and Coakley warning about a return to Bush-era economic policies.
The candidates fought bitterly over health care, with Coakley saying she would be proud to be the 60th vote for a reform bill and Brown saying he would be the 41st vote against it. They also differed on taxes. But the sharpest exchanges came over national security as Brown hammered Coakley for supporting civilian prosecution of suspected terrorists -- including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- and for not backing President Obama's proposal to add troops in Afghanistan.
"We are at war, we're at war in our airports, we're at war in our shopping malls," Brown said. "I have to be honest with you, folks. ... I'm scared at some of the policies that I've heard."
"It's naive to think that we have the troops to send everywhere," Coakley said. "Let's be clear who's naive."
The spirited, hourlong debate at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which was sponsored by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate and moderated by political commentator David Gergen, came at a critical time in their abbreviated Senate campaign, with voters set to go to the polls in eight days. The race, which will determine who will fill out the rest of the late Edward M. Kennedy's term, has drawn national attention amid the high-stakes debate in Washington over health care.
There were several flashpoints, but by and large Coakley and Brown clashed on the issues that have defined the campaign from the beginning. Coakley remained even-keeled, at times even dispassionate, while Brown continued to pounce on his opponent, smiling in disbelief at her positions while looking directly into the camera.
Coakley at times seemed annoyed by Brown’s rhetoric — accusing him of stretching the truth — and Brown at times took umbrage when Coakley challenged him.
‘‘I’m not in your courtroom,’’ he said at one point, as Coakley displayed a wry smile. ‘‘I’m not a defendant.’’
Brown also bristled at suggestions that the seat he was seeking was a Kennedy seat, despite being held for decades by a family member or confidante.
‘‘With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat,’’ Brown said. ‘‘It’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.’’
As the candidates fought over taxes, Coakley turned aggressive, suggesting that Brown was promoting a return to the era of George W. Bush, which she said favored the rich and triggered the economic collapse.
‘‘He wants to go back to those Bush-Cheney policies that provide for the very wealthiest,’’ she said.
‘‘You can run against Bush-Cheney, but I’m Scott Brown,’’ Brown responded. ‘‘I live in Wrentham. I drive a truck.’’
He went on to assert that Coakley’s fiscal policies — her support for a health care overhaul, for rolling back the tax cuts signed by Bush, and for a cap-and-trade system to stem climate change — would raise taxes and cost jobs.
‘‘There’s no one that’s listening right now that believes, Martha, that you are the tax-cutting candidate,’’ Brown said.
But Coakley repeatedly sought to link Brown with what she called the failures of the Bush administration.
‘‘To me it’s astounding that Scott will stand here and say that this problem must have just come out of nowhere, and his solution is to do nothing except to do some across-the-board tax cut,’’ she said. ‘‘This deficit was created by a reckless administration.’’
Health care continued to divide the candidates. Brown opposes the bills before Congress, saying he wants to send things ‘‘back to the drawing board.’’
‘‘I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to being the 41st vote,’’ Brown said.
‘‘I’d be proud to be the 60th vote,’’ Coakley responded.
Still, Coakley said she opposes a proposal, supported by Obama, to help pay for the overhaul in part through new taxes on the most expensive, or so-called Cadillac, health care plans.
Later in the debate, Brown refused to answer directly a question posed by Coakley about a measure he filed in 2005 that would have allowed hospital personnel to deny contraceptives to rape victims if they had religious objections. The amendment, which did not pass, was attached to a bill that he ultimately voted for, which required emergency rooms to provide contraceptives to rape victims.
‘‘To think, I wouldn’t, even especially with my two young daughters here, with all due respect, that I wouldn’t allow them the opportunity if they were raped to have the immediate attention, I think is abhorrent,’’ Brown said. ‘‘Even to infer I would do that is abhorrent.’’
But Coakley never referenced Brown’s daughters, and the amendment would have limited options for rape victims after the crime.
Brown also said he supports Roe v Wade, even though he has the backing of prolife activists. He also suggested that climate change may not be caused entirely by humans.
‘‘The climate is always changing, it always has,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s a question of whether it’s manmade or natural, and it’s probably a combination of both.’’
But the Republican’s main goal tonight seemed to be to try to cast Coakley as weak on terrorism.
‘‘To think we’d give people who want to kill us constitutional rights and lawyer them up at our expense instead of treating them as enemy combatants to get as much information as we can under legal means, it just makes no sense to me,’’ Brown said. ‘‘And it shows me that you don’t quite understand the law when it comes to enemy combatants versus terrorists versus United States citizens.
Brown later asked Coakley, who opposes the death penalty, whether she would support killing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
‘‘I agree with that,’’ she said, adding that she personally opposed the death penalty. ‘‘If he’s found guilty, and I believe he will be ... he will face the death penalty. That’s what the law of the land is, and I support the law of the land.’’
‘‘There’s nothing more important than keeping this country safe, and keeping our homeland security safe and our allies safe,’’ Coakley added. ‘‘But we need to do it as smartly as we can. We’ve been at war since 9/11. There’s no dispute about that.’’
After the debate, Brown’s campaign attacked Coakley’s statement that the Taliban were gone from Afghanistan, saying it reflected ‘‘a deeply troubling lack of awareness of the threats facing our troops and our national security.’’
The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, said the US bears some blame for radical Islamic terrorism.
‘‘If we want a safer country, what we need to do is we need to not occupy these lands,’’ he said.
Today marked a new, feistier tone for Coakley’s campaign, which some Democrats have worried has not been aggressive enough.
After tonight’s debate, Coakley released the campaign’s first candidate-sponsored negative ad, trying to brand Brown as a ‘‘lock-step Republican.’’
‘‘Who is Scott Brown really?’’ the narrator says. ‘‘A Republican. In lock step with Washington Republicans.’’ Late in the debate, Coakley rejected suggestions she was not vying hard enough for the seat.
‘‘To suggest that I’m somehow taking this for granted, or not working hard — look at our policy papers on the website,’’ she said. ‘‘Look at our volunteers. You can look at the phone calling. ... I’m working very hard day and night, as my campaign and all our volunteers are, to make sure we get our message out.’’
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