They're fighting for the chance to face Democratic Representative Bill Owens in the November election.
With the primary just two weeks away, both men agreed on most of the issues.
But they spent ninety minutes questioning each other's integrity and arguing over who has the best shot to reclaim a House seat that was once a Republican stronghold.
As Brian Mann reports, more than 200 people turned out to hear what the two men had to say.
North Country Congressman Bill Owens and Vermont Congressman...
The clearest message from last night’s debate was that Matt Doheny and Doug Hoffman really don’t like each other. When asked to give one reason why he might consider voting for his opponent, Hoffman –who lives in Saranac Lake – answered this way: "If I died?"
Doheny, who lives in Watertown, tossed jab after jab of his own, suggesting that Hoffman has been ducking debates and describing the accountant as a loser who can’t beat Democrat Bill Owens. "Last time out, he failed. He’s not going to be able to do it this time as well."
Doheny has the support of all eleven Republican Party chairs in the 23rd district, while Hoffman has the backing of the Conservative Party and the tea party movement. That’s made for a tense primary.
But the bruising tone for this debate may have been fixed last week, when Doheny released his first negative TV ad. "Doug Hoffman is personally pocketing thousands in campaign dollars," the ad claims.
That allegation drew an angry response from Hoffman. Here he is speaking after the debate. "The people will realize that this is just a smear campaign, it’s an outright lie, and Matt Doheny knows it," he insisted.
There’s a reason why so much of last night’s debate focused on personality issues and “gotcha” moments – and that’s the fact that Hoffman and Doheny appear to agree on most of the issues. This was a common refrain throughout the evening: "I agree in large part with what Doug said," Doheny conceded. "I agree with Matt, what Matt says," Hoffman noted.
But this fact – that the two men were largely indistinguishable on the issues – may represent a significant victory for Doheny. Doug Hoffman emerged as a national conservative celebrity during last year’s special election, appearing regularly on talk radio and Fox News.
Doheny has been working to convince Republican primary voters that he’s also conservative enough to carry their banner in Washington. "The key to turning back the Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama regime. The reality is right now we’re over-taxed, we’re over-regulated, and we have a terrible, terrible, terrible growth of government that’s going on every single day," said Doheny.
Rhetoric like that convinced Terry Finnan from the town of Keene to give Doheny a second look. "I think they both could do a good job," he said, adding that he's not sure who he'll vote for.
But a sticking point for some conservatives in the audience last night was the fact that Doheny supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Hoffman wants to criminalize abortion completely.
Joann Guinn from Plattsburgh says she supports Hoffman’s tougher line. "One of the major issues that he professes is that he’s a right-to-lifer and so am I," she said. "And if for no other reason, I would stick with him for that, because I truly, truly believe – I’m totally against abortion."
While Doheny was trying to claim the conservative mantle, Hoffman worked to show that he can handle this sort of unscripted, no-safety-net style of debate. In past outings, he has often appeared wooden and uncomfortable and over-scripted. Last night, Hoffman seemed a bit more comfortable, more natural.
"Matt, you can’t learn about the district in 7 months. I’ve been here for almost forty years and I’ve worked daily with the district. I know what’s going on. I don’t have to visit everybody and everybody around, hear what they have to say and reiterate it. I’ve worked here and I’ve struggled with the people in this district to make a living, to earn a living and make businesses survive."
But even some of Hoffman’s supporters – including tea party leader Mark Barie, who organized this debate – say he’s still too rough and too awkward. "On style I think Mr. Doheny pulled ahead clearly," he conceded. "I’m a little disappointed that Doug in his preparation either didn’t have the time or…or I guess didn’t have the time to work a little bit more on his delivery. If and when Doug wins the primary and he goes up against Bill Owens, he has to be smoother than he was tonight. And I’m saying that for a fellow who I like and I’ve endorsed."
But others, including Peter Guibord from Plattsburgh, say Hoffman’s less polished approach makes him more attractive to tea party voters. "Mr. Doheny was a little smoother, but the appeal of Doug Hoffman is that he sounds like the North Country, like us, and a lot of people here know him," he said.
One other take-away from last night is that no one has a solid fix on where this race is at. With two weeks to go before the primary, both candidates are using bare-knuckle rhetoric. That usually means they think they could be running behind. The next debate is scheduled for September 7 in Saranac Lake.