SPOKANE – Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican challenger Mike McGavick displayed grit without exchanging grime Thursday in their first debate of the campaign.
A standing room crowd of 250 in the Spokane Club witnessed the 30-minute debate.
Neither candidate strayed far from the established themes of their campaigns.
McGavick asserted the public’s frustration with Congress can be stemmed by changing the people elected to serve while Cantwell touted her successes for Washington state, saying she merits another term in the U.S. Senate.
McGavick replaced his call for civility in Congress – civility never came up in the debate – with an urging of voters to choose leaders who will govern with “open hearts and open minds.”
He also put forth a new criticism of Cantwell as one who piles up accomplishments in smaller battles in lieu of addressing the more difficult dilemmas.
“You will hear achievements certainly from my opponent. But none will be at the heart of the issues that keep us up at night. And I think we need someone to work on these biggest issues,” McGavick said in his opening statement.
As forecast, Cantwell began by listing her successes, including fighting the spread of meth, expanding export of Washington goods to Cuba, and preventing manipulation of the energy market by large corporations.
“I tried to be your voice in Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Later she tackled the perception she is a lightweight lawmaker.
“I’ve never shrunk from standing up to the biggest bullies in Washington, D.C., and I haven’t been bought off by their various claims of what to do for them,” she said.
Cantwell, who turns 48 today, is seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 7 election.
In 2000, she unseated GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, a former boss of McGavick’s, by a mere 2,229 votes.
McGavick, 48, stepped down as chairman and chief executive officer of Safeco Insurance to run. He managed Gorton’s successful 1988 Senate campaign and then worked as his chief of staff before joining the American Insurance Association.
The two candidates answered questions on the war in Iraq, immigration, tax cuts, education, Medicare and gas prices in Spokane, which are among the nation’s highest.
Immigration reform provided one of the sharper exchanges.
Cantwell said she backed the Senate’s comprehensive law to increase funding for border security measures, create a guest worker program and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here. The House never considered it.
She chafed at McGavick’s charge in a TV ad that she backs Social Security benefits for illegal workers. Cantwell cited a University of Pennsylvania group’s study that the allegation is untrue and part of a Republican Party strategy to inflame emotions against immigrants.
“We are a better nation than to try to fear monger in an election year,” she said.
McGavick said she voted to retain a law letting a person who is here illegally and somehow gets a Social Security card to retain those benefits if, at some point in the future, they become legal residents.
“The senator may have wished she hadn’t voted to give illegal workers rewards … but she did,” he said. “I can’t imagine a more wrong-minded idea.”
On the war, Cantwell said she wants to see the U.S. change its course and involve more countries in helping Iraq rebuild. That would lead to a clearer plan for when troop levels could be reduced.
McGavick said U.S. policy must be adjusted “until we get it right” but reducing troop levels too soon would be a terrible mistake.
The other three Senate candidates were not invited to participate Thursday.
One of them, Libertarian Bruce Guthrie, did show up with supporter Steve Layman of Whidbey Island.
“They’re like Tweedledum and Tweedledee on the Iraq War,” Guthrie said. “Nobody brought up civil liberties. There’s no difference on these two big issues between the two candidates.”
A second debate will be held Tuesday in Seattle. Guthrie will be taking part. It will be televised at 9 p.m. on KING 5 TV in Seattle and 10 p.m. on Northwest Cable News Network.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@ heraldnet.com.