RENO - Republican congressional candidate Mark Amodei and Democrat Kate Marshall traded jabs Wednesday over taxes, Medicare and how best to create jobs in the first debate before Nevada's Sept. 13 special election to fill a vacant House seat.
Both tried to paint themselves as fiscal conservatives who would help bring sanity to Washington, D.C., and bridge a divided Congress.
"I'll fight to preserve Social Security and Medicare because we need a balanced budget," said Marshall, Nevada's current state treasurer. "We can't do that on the backs of our seniors."
Amodei, a former state senator, stressed his prior legislative and private sector experience.
On the federal deficit, he said, "We've overspent and we need to dance with the ones that made this country great. That's the private sector."
The debate sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars also included Tim Fasano, the Independent American Party candidate, and Helmuth Lehmann, an independent businessman who gathered signatures to get on the ballot. Both said they favored limited government, a flat tax and local control over education.
Marshall took aim at Amodei for supporting a modified business tax approved by lawmakers in 2003. She called the tax that charges businesses for hiring people "the wrong tax policy" for a state that leads the nation in joblessness.
Amodei defended his vote and said it was better than an alternative proposal being pushed at the time.
Regarding education, all four candidates agreed the federal No Child Left Behind law doesn't work, but for different reasons.
"How about we get the feds out of the business of being in our schools?" Fasano said.
Lehmann said there was correlation between education funding and pupil achievement.
Amodei said, "If the choices are change, more money or leave it the same, I'm a change person." He said education programs and needs should be decided at the local level.
Marshall said the problem was lack of funding to meet the law's objectives. "They enact something and they don't fund it or worse, when our schools fail, they withdraw the money."
Both Amodei and Marshall's campaigns have been targeting seniors in ads that suggest the other wants to cut Medicare.
Amodei claims Marshall supports the national health care law that expands coverage to 30 million uninsured people in 2014. A recent ad singles out a $500 billion reduction in future Medicare costs included in the federal health care law, and suggests Marshall is trying to hide her support for deep cuts to the program.
Marshall, meanwhile, has focused on Amodei's support for a Republican budget that calls for privatizing Medicare.
While he has praised the budget pushed by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and approved by the Republican-led House, Amodei has also questioned the Medicare component, and vowed to protect senior citizens. Amodei, however, has said he would consider increasing the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
Marshall has said she would not support any plan to raise the Medicare eligibility age.
She also has said she would not repeal the federal health care law but has questioned whether it's too expensive, while Amodei wants to overhaul the health care law.
The winner of next month's election will fill the unexpired term of Republican Dean Heller, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Brian Sandoval after John Ensign resigned in May in the wake of an affair and ethics investigation. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2012 to retain the seat.
Nevada's sprawling, 2nd Congressional District covers all of northern Nevada and a slice of Clark County in the south. Republicans hold a 30,000 voter registration edge in the largely rural district that includes Reno, and Democrats haven't held the seat since it was created in 1982.
The state has never held a special election to fill a House seat, and rules originally established by Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, to allow for an open contest were challenged by the Republican Party. An open contest, described by Miller as a "ballot royale," could have split the GOP vote and benefited Democrats, especially if voter turnout is low, as predicted.
But the Nevada Supreme Court ultimately said that major political parties should choose their candidate, and the ruling knocked 22 candidates off the ballot.
Local election officials then disqualified four others, leaving the four remaining candidates.