Incumbent Democrat Bill Owens and Republican Matt Doheny sparred on well-trodden ground, like tax cuts, the deficit, and Medicare.
They also differed, sharply at times, on a range of other issues, including the military.
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Last night’s debate at Jefferson Community College stuck to familiar territory on economic issues. Matt Doheny attacked early and aggressively, criticizing Bill Owens’ support of a tax hike on the rich: "Why on earth would we want to go ahead and raise taxes at the exact moment when we in the North Country are facing almost 10 percent unemployment?"
Owens stuck to the centrist approach he’s favored since becoming Congressman in 2009, saying Congress would have to "both cut and have increased revenue."
With Fort Drum just down the road, military issues took center stage. The candidates agreed on the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they differed on how to approach Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Owens preached against combat in Iran: "We have done our duty on Afghanistan and Iraq more than a hundred fold. Many of the brave folks who have done that, lived it, bled it are sitting out at Fort Drum. I think it would be a mistake to move in that direction without exhausting every other alternative available to us."
Doheny took a more hawkish tone: "Iran having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for our security. It’s unacceptable for our biggest ally and friend in the middle East, Israel. And that has to be taken seriously, and all options have to be on the table."
Doheny attacked Owens for supporting President Obama’s half a trillion dollars in defense cuts over 10 years. The Republican said that could hurt Fort Drum. Owens touted $400 million in military construction he funneled to the base and a plan to bring a new drone mission to Fort Drum.
One interesting exchange came not over the military, but rather over administering drug tests to welfare recipients, which Matt Doheny said he supports: "When that safety net turns into a hammock, we need to go ahead and change, where you see generation after generation get locked into a cycle of poverty, we have to stop that."
Owens said in other states, a very low rate of positive tests makes the program not worthwhile. And he took a jab of his own at Doheny. "He indicated he wasn’t sure what he would do with the results, so what that sounds like to me is, I want to do something, spend some money, but I don’t know what to do with the results."
A yes-or-no lightning round provided some light moments, like when Owens wouldn’t decide between Lake George and Alexandria Bay as the better vacation spot. And the candidates' responses to moderator Liz Benjamin's question about whether they'd every tip a cow. Doheny said, "yes, sorry mom!", while Owens said "no."
The only independent poll in this race showed Owens up by 13 points last month. But the amount of money pouring in from both national parties may indicate a tighter race. According to Bloomberg News, this campaign now ranks number five in the country in the number of TV ads in the last 30 days.
Hear a sampling of reactions to the debate here.