RENO — Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley painted each other as enemies of the middle class Thursday in their first debate in one of the nation’s most watched U.S. Senate races.“Nobody has done more to hurt the middle class than my opponent,” said Heller, a former congressman.Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman from Las Vegas, repeated several times that Heller voted “nine times to give tax breaks to oil companies” and “five times to give tax breaks to corporations to ship jobs overseas.”“He talks a good game,” Berkley said. “My opponent is fighting for the big guys, the guys who don’t need his help. My opponent is playing for the other team.”Heller said Berkley is the one in the pocket of big business.“She has bailed out Detroit. She has bailed out Wall Street. She has raised more money in New York City than the city of Reno,” he said.“My opponent keeps saying ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but every time she votes for a jobs bill, unemployment goes higher,” Heller said. “I see far more going out of business sales than I see grand openings.”Heller said he bucked his own party and supported extending unemployment benefits, and said he believes government should provide a safety net for the downtrodden.Heller, 52, was in the middle of his third term representing Nevada’s heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District when he was appointed in 2011 to the Senate by Gov. Brian Sandoval to replace John Ensign who resigned amid an ethics probe involving his affair with a staffer’s wife.Berkley, 61, is a seven-term congresswoman from a predominantly Democratic district in Las Vegas.While both are veteran politicians, their previous elections were in safe districts at opposite ends of the state. Now, both are trying to introduce themselves to unfamiliar electorates in a tight race that could determine whether Democrats retain control of the Senate.Berkley has attacked Heller in her campaign ads for backing Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals, trying to portray him as out of sync with the middle class. Heller has blasted Berkley on ethics and her votes for stimulus packages.Those attacks continued in Thursday’s debate, the first of three scheduled in a swing state where Ann Romney visited earlier in the day. President Barack Obama plans a trip to Las Vegas Sunday and Michelle Obama to Reno on Wednesday.“Look, my opponent voted not once, but twice for the Ryan budget that ends Medicare by turning it over the private insurers,” Berkley said. “The cost is going to skyrocket.”Heller ads have hammered Berkley over a House Ethics Committee investigation into her votes supporting a kidney program at a Las Vegas hospital that benefited her husband’s medical practice. After largely leaving the issue to his campaign, last week he told reporters Berkley was “the most corrupt and unethical person I’ve ever met.”Heller referenced the investigation several times during the debate, at one point saying “character matters.”“My opponent’s motto seems to be ‘it’s not a lie if I can convince enough Nevadans to believe it,”’ he said.
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