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Friday, August 10, 2012

 11:11 PM 

GOP U.S. Senate candidates avoid attacks in final primary debate

After weeks of nasty campaigning, the GOP U.S. Senate candidates Friday night avoided attacks.

In their lone televised statewide debate -- the final one of the campaign -- the four dressed alike (all in dark suits and red ties) and sounded alike, calling for a reduction of the corporate income tax to 25 percent and the repeal of the federal health care law. Asked once by co-moderator Charles Benson whether any of them thought the other wouldn't repeal the health care law, nobody took the opportunity to take a punch.

The debate stood in direct contrast to the tone of the campaign leading up to Tuesday's primary. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has been under fire for comments supporting a mandate to purchase health insurance, while community banker and hedge fund manager Eric Hovde and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann have taken hits over their companies' ties to federal bailout and stimulus programs.

While those three almost went out of their way to avoid attacks on each other, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald several times said he supported the positions his opponents expressed in the course of the debate. He also attempted to tie many of his policies at the state level to federal issues.

"So when you're looking at these tough decisions, the same way we took on collective bargaining reform, the same thing has to happen at the federal level when it comes to entitlement reform," Fitzgerald said.

Former Congressman Mark Neumann, who has used the TARP program to take shots at Hovde, softened his commentary on the issue in the debate to focus on criticism of bailouts and government spending. He also frequently touted his list of line-item budget cuts to balance the federal budget, holding up a booklet with his plan to the camera numerous times. Neumann also frequently quoted from a hand-held copy of the Constitution.

"Well, I'm the only candidate at this race that has been there before and done this before," Neumann said. "When I was in Congress for four years, we put together plans at that point to balance the federal budget and I've done it again."

While the debate lacked any attacks, former Gov. Tommy Thompson created an opening on one of the points that his opponents have seized upon in negative ads: Thompson's previous comments in support of an individual mandate on health insurance.

Thompson was quoted in a debate in 2006 with former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala as supporting a state mandate as proposed in Massachusetts, though including the caveat that a private sector should take the lead in putting forward proposals to cover the uninsured. When he was asked about those comments during the U.S. Senate debate, Thompson attempted to distinguish them from more recent opposition.

"That (which) I was supporting was a state mandate, this was a federal mandate that I testified against in 2008," Thompson said.

The Hovde campaign sent a one-line press release reacting to the comments shortly after that statement, simply noting his comment. After the debate, Thompson denied to reporters that he supported the state mandate, instead saying he supported the state's right to experiment with health programs through federal waivers. He said that while those waivers allowed a state mandate in Massachusetts, he did not personally support state mandates.

All four candidates remained in agreement on repeal of Obamacare and the need for a market-based health care solution, but Hovde did step outside of the concurrence on two occasions. Hovde said he did not believe pre-existing conditions should preclude someone from coverage if they are renewing a policy and suggested using high-risk pools to cover those individuals. These statements came after saying he didn't support any portion of the Affordable Care Act, which includes prohibitions on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Further, while Thompson and Fitzgerald defended Medicare Part D's implementation, Neumann and Hovde took more skeptical tones. Neumann said the program has to be looked at in comparison to government priorities. Hovde said he was "troubled" by Medicare Part D's lack of offsets to pay for it and the lack of negotiation over the drugs covered in the program.

"Our federal government was not allowed to negotatie with big pharma on the purchase of those drugs," Hovde said. "And not only that, there was a rider put in that prevented the federal government from buying drugs from Canada, which does negotiate with big pharma, that typically buys their drugs at a 40 percent discount. So as a result, in my view, it was way too much of a gift to big pharma at the expense of the taxpayers."

After none of the four took a shot at each other, they were asked an open question if they thought anyone standing next to them would not repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. All four paused before Fitzgerald got a laugh from the crowd when he asked, "Are we all supposed to answer at the same time?"

Each promised to cut taxes, with Fitzgerald and Thompson expressing support for a flat tax. None supported repealing the tax deduction for mortgage interest, but all promised deep cuts in government spending. Thompson offered that he'd seek across-the-board cuts of 5 percent for every agency, including defense, saying secretaries would respond with innovative ways to make up for the lost money.

They all also said they opposed requiring private companies to provide birth control as part of their health plans.

-- By Jason Smathers

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