FALL RIVER — Republican Sean Bielat and Democrat Joseph P. Kennedy III faced off in their second debate on Wednesday in the race for the congressional seat being vacated by US Representative Barney Frank, and though the liberal stalwart was not in attendance, his presence was still felt.
Asked to name the member of Congress that he most admired, Kennedy said, “Congressman Frank would be right up there.’’
Bielat ran a spirited campaign against Frank in 2010 and elicited laughter from supporters when he responded, “I would differ with that.’’
Bielat, who cited Republican Senator Richard Lugar as a favorite, and Kennedy also clashed on standard points of GOP and Democratic orthodoxy, including the government’s role in creating jobs and whether or not to repeal the national health reform law.
But in a debate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center here that was largely civil, even subdued, the sharpest exchange came when the candidates discussed an issue they claim to agree on: the need for campaign finance reform.
Bielat noted that Kennedy has amassed a vast financial warchest during the campaign and said, “Whether you want to vote Republican or not, you should always have a choice. And the only way you get a choice is if the playing field is level.’’
Kennedy said he had offered to sign a pledge with Bielat barring outside groups from running ads in the race. He also pointed to a Boston Herald article in which a Bielat aide said it would be OK if an outside supporter wanted to spend “a billion dollars’’ attacking Kennedy.
“If that’s what we’re doing and if that’s what he’s trying to do, then we have to keep raising money,’’ Kennedy said.
Bielat interrupted Kennedy to ask, “Is that an actual quote?’’ and then labeled it “hyperbole.’’
Kennedy also repeatedly attacked Bielat for what he said was his support of the federal budget platform of Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential candidate.
Supporters of the plan have called it a bold step to trim the deficit and preserve Medicare and other programs for future generations.
But echoing familiar lines of attack from critics, Kennedy said the plan would introduce drastic cuts to social programs and education, gut Medicare, and grant new tax breaks to millionaires.
“That is not reflective of a society where we are all in this together,’’ Kennedy said.
Bielat countered that his opponent was mischaracterizing his view of the Ryan budget, adding that like any large government proposal, it has pros and cons.
“To say because Sean has said supportive things about the Ryan budget, he wants to throw poor people out on the street, throw the seniors off the cliff, is the kind of rhetoric that gets us to the partisan divide in which we find ourselves today,’’ Bielat said.
The candidates did find common ground on two issues relevant to the South Coast region.
Both said they would work as a congressman to secure federal support for a South Coast rail system.
And on the question of whether a tribal casino belongs in Taunton, both demurred. Each man said the choice was best left to the affected communities, and that casinos speak to a larger need for longterm economic growth in the region.
When asked if they would support legislation to make it easier for tribes to take land into federal trust — a key step for the tribe seeking to build a Taunton casino — Bielat said no, while Kennedy answered that it would depend on how the bill was written.
The debate was co-sponsored by UMass Dartmouth and MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank. It included a “lightning round’’ in which the candidates were asked for short answers to questions about hot-button policy issues.
During that segment, Kennedy said he would support a constitutional amendment to mitigate the effect of the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruling that lifted restrictions on campaign contributions from corporations and unions. Bielat said such an amendment would have to include a more comprehensive reform plan.
Both candidates also said they will vote against a state ballot question to allow physician-assisted suicide.
On the question of President Obama’s timetable for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, Bielat said he opposed the notion of a public schedule, adding that American forces must have a “smaller footprint’’ in the country focused mainly on the border regions with Pakistan.
Kennedy said he supported withdrawing troops “as quickly as [is] prudent.’’
Asked what they admired about their opponents, both men offered tempered praise.
“I think he’s got, from what I can tell, a lovely family,’’ Kennedy said.
Bielat said, “I like Joe … I respect the fact that he’s getting out and campaigning and doing this. I haven’t seen anything that shows a lack of integrity or character.’’