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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Republican Deb Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey disappointed no one who came to the Nebraska State Fair on Saturday for a really good political show.
In a spirited debate heavy on issues and raucous audience feedback, the candidates running to be Nebraska's next U.S. senator staked out their positions on entitlement reform, immigration and how to best confront the economic challenges facing the nation.
Fischer, a two-term state senator from Valentine, said she will work to lower taxes, cut the size of government and pass a balanced budget amendment. She promised to take the “Nebraska way” to Washington.
“Nebraskans have said ‘enough' — enough spending, enough debt and enough taxes on the middle class,” she said.
Kerrey, a former governor who served two terms in the U.S. Senate, said he would work to simplify the tax code, reform immigration policy and close the gap between rich and poor. And he pledged to do it by “shaking up” Washington.
“I promise you I will challenge Harry Reid as often as I annoy Mitch McConnell,” he said, referring to the Senate's current Democratic and Republican leaders, respectively.
It was the first debate between Fischer and Kerrey in their run for the seat that will be vacated by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Two more debates are expected before November's election, but the campaigns have yet to agree on details.
Both candidates were aggressive, giving fast-paced answers that highlighted their differences. They also avoided mudslinging.
Kerrey, for example, refrained from bringing up his “welfare rancher” accusation — a reference to a grazing lease that Fischer's family has on federal land in Cherry County.
By the same token, Fischer never brought up the Republican Party's criticism of Kerrey's return to run in Nebraska after living and working the past 12 years in New York.
“Nobody called me a carpetbagger when I returned from Vietnam,” Kerrey said in response to a question from the panel. “It's a phony issue.”
When asked about Kerrey's time in New York, Fischer declined to “approach the question,” as she put it, saying there are serious issues that need attention.
The debate harkened to a long tradition of statewide candidates meeting before State Fair crowds. It was the first such debate in Grand Island, where the fair moved from Lincoln in 2010.
Hundreds of fairgoers took seats in the Heartland Events Center for the 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by The World-Herald, the Grand Island Independent and RFD-TV, a subscription network dedicated to agriculture news and rural life. The debate was moderated by Mark Oppold of RFD-TV and the candidates were questioned by George Ayoub of the Independent and Robynn Tysver of The World-Herald.
Both candidates had scores of supporters in attendance, along with immediate family members. Kerrey's wife, Sarah Paley, and their young son, Henry, were in the audience, as were Fischer's husband, Bruce, and their three adult sons.
Gov. Dave Heineman and a number of state senators also attended.
The debate came as polls have consistently shown Fischer with a sizable lead in the race, but Kerrey argues that it's early and voters have yet to tune in closely.
When asked about the failure of Congress to pass a federal farm bill, Fischer said the food stamp program now makes up 80 percent of the legislation. She supports a U.S. House plan that makes cuts to food stamps.
“We're on a fiscal cliff,” she said. “This is a good example of it.”
Kerrey said it would be disastrous to remove the food stamp program from the farm bill. “It's a food, farm and jobs bill. It always has been,” he said.
The candidates also differed in their responses to questions about the deepening financial crisis faced by Medicare and Social Security.
Kerrey called the two programs a $60 trillion unfunded liability. Making the programs solvent would require a combination of targeted tax increases and raising the age eligibility for benefits, he said.
“We're headed to Greece,” he said, referring to the bankrupt nation. “We've got to scale it back, otherwise we're simply not going to be able to survive as a great nation.”
Fischer said the way to address the challenges confronting those programs is to cut taxes and grow the economy, which would provide the necessary revenue.
“Let me be perfectly clear, I will not cut benefits for anyone over 40. We need to honor our commitment to our seniors and those who are approaching that age,” she said.
On the thorny topic of immigration, Kerrey said he supports the position of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who would provide a pathway to legal status for immigrants who serve in the military.
Fischer said she will not support such a policy.
“I don't support a pathway to citizenship for anybody who is in this country illegally,” she said.
Kerrey accused her of being unbending on an issue that will require compromise.
“You're not going to solve this problem unless you get to the middle, and Sen. Fischer can't get to the middle of her own party,” he said.
The candidates were asked for yes-or-no answers to a series of questions, including whether they support the current plan for U.S. combat troops to leave Afghanistan in 2014. (Fischer, no; Kerrey, yes.)
Both candidates answered “no'' when asked if abortion would be a major factor in considering a U.S. Supreme Court nominee and “no” when asked how they would vote on the House budget bill known as the Ryan plan.
The debate format also allowed the candidates to question each other.
“This is a serious question,” Kerrey said, as he prepared to pose the final question of the night.
“Say it with a smile,” Fischer replied, prompting laughter.
“I'm trying, my heart is smiling, believe me,” he said, prompting more laughter.
Kerrey then listed his professional and political achievements in Washington and New York over the past 11 years.
“Is there anything ... that I've done in the past 11 years that would qualify me to represent Nebraska in the Senate?” Kerrey asked.
Fischer answered by listing her own professional and political achievements in Nebraska over the same time.
“I would say, Mr. Kerrey, you've served, and I thank you for your service,” she said.
“But I believe we need to look to the future. I don't think we can keep sending the same type of guy back there.”
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