BOSTON—Republican Scott Brown went on the offensive against Democrat Martha Coakley on everything from health care to abortion during the first forum of the final campaign stretch to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy.
The GOP state senator accused the Democratic attorney general on Monday of backing down after she said she would support a U.S. Senate version of the federal health care overhaul bill. Coakley had earlier said she would have voted against the House version because of an anti-abortion amendment.
"During the primary Martha basically took a principled position," said Brown, who opposes both health care bills, saying they would harm Massachusetts' efforts to expand health coverage. "She's already abandoned that position."
Brown said that while the two support abortion rights, they differ on some specifics. Brown said he is in favor of strong parental rights and opposes late-term abortion while Coakley supports it.
Coakley accused Brown of misstating her position.
Coakley said that unlike the House version of the health care bill, the Senate abortion amendment was closer to current federal law, which keeps government funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.
"This is a bill I would support and vote for, not just to move it along," Coakley said.
Coakley said her position on late-term abortion mirrors the law. She said she supports the procedure, which opponents call partial-birth abortion, in cases in which the health or life of the mother is at risk, but not for convenience.
At times Coakley seemed surprised by Brown's attacks, saying she thought the forum was a chance to present their views rather than to engage directly with each other.
The debate was also the first to include Joseph L. Kennedy, a Libertarian candidate running as an independent who is no relation to the late senator, who died of brain cancer in August at age 77.
Brown also went after Coakley on taxes, saying she supports higher taxes because she opposes extending Bush-era tax cuts. The criticism mirrored comments Brown made earlier in the day, when he said Coakley was "either lying or she doesn't understand federal tax code" when she said she has not benefited from the cuts.
Coakley said she's opposed to Bush-era cuts targeted at the nation's wealthiest, including the top 2 percent of wage earners.
"I support a tax policy that will support the middle class," Coakley said. "Letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the top 2 percent is appropriate."
Kennedy, the third-party candidate, said he would support all cuts in the federal income tax.
"The goal would be to eliminate the income tax," said Kennedy, who said he also supports allowing gay marriage, is opposed to the health care bill and favors abortion rights even though he was adopted.
The candidates were asked their thoughts on global warming and energy policy.
Coakley said she supports efforts to curb greenhouse gases.
Brown said the climate is always changing and it's unclear whether it's a man-made phenomenon or something that is occurring naturally. He said he regretted his support of Massachusetts' decision to join a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 Northeastern states designed to curb carbon emissions.
A second debate will be taped Tuesday at the WBZ-TV News studios. Hosted by political analyst Jon Keller, it will be streamed live on the station's Web site at 7 p.m.
The debate will also be broadcast Sunday morning.
The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts said Monday it had to cancel a planned debate because Coakley failed to commit to the forum before the League's deadline. The local League's president, Zaxaro Bennett, said Brown and Kennedy had agreed to the debate.
The election is Jan. 19.
During an appearance earlier in the day on WTKK radio, Brown said that while Massachusetts Democrats are rallying against his candidacy, he feels he has already won his campaign.
He said his wife, WCVB-TV reporter Gail Huff, wrote him a supportive note that echoed the admiration expressed by his two children.
"Not only her but my daughters have said, `Daddy, we're very proud of you,'" he said. "I've already won."