MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA GOP Sen. Conrad Burns and challenger Jon Tester slugged it out again Thursday night over the federal deficit, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, ethics and lobbyists. Burns, seeking a fourth term, has less than four weeks to fight for his office in the face of polls that show Tester may be taking a slim lead. He hammered home campaign themes: Tester can’t bring big federal money back to the state, he opposes the Bush Administration tax cuts, and he is too liberal. “Mr. Tester is a taxer. Period,” Burns said. “He thrives on that. We are tax cutters.” Tester pointed to reasons why it’s “time for a change”; saying Burns has supported a misguided war in Iraq, broke a promise to run for only two terms, is out of touch on such issues as health insurance for the middle class and helped break the budget with a record federal deficit. “Senator Burns is a borrower and spender,” Tester said. “I want a pay-as-you-go system.” Burns touted his experience, and Tester did the same, saying that as state Senate president he presided over a balanced state budget that didn’t increase taxes. Once again, the two played to a full house as more than 750 watched them debate at the airport in Helena. And again, Tester supporters appeared to easily outnumber Burns supporters, with many in the Audience wearing bright yellow shirts emblazoned with “Fire Burns!” Two more debates are scheduled, one in Billings next week and another in Great Falls. Burns, answering a direct question from Tester, denied helping a client of Jack Abramoff get a multimillion dollar “earmark” from Congress, saying his ties to the convicted lobbyist have been blown out of proportion. “You’ve been beating me up for months on Jack Abramoff,” Burns said. “Nothing has changed for me, because I broke no laws.” Burns asked Tester why he wouldn’t support the Bush Administration tax cuts other Democrats supported. Tester brought the issue back to the federal deficit, saying “I’m not going to put my children’s future on the line so I can spend like a drunken sailor.” He said there are portions of the Bush cuts he would support. The candidates were given a chance to say something nice about their opponent and had little to say, although Tester did note that he respected the fact that Burns has taken 18 years out of his life to serve the state back in Washington, D.C. Burns was booed when he compared Tester to an “ultra liberal,” saying “He believes in tax and spend.” The two had sharp differences on how to deal with Iran and North Korea. Tester said the United States needs to develop stronger diplomatic efforts to deal with the threat of terrorists coming out of Iran and North Korea’s apparent development of a nuclear weapon. Burns said Cold War methods will work best. “We must remind them of our deterrence. We still have missiles in the ground,” Burns said. “We can still deal with a country with nuclear bombs. We did it with the Russians, and we can do it with the rest of them.” The two did agree a little on Social Security, with both saying they don’t support privatization of the benefit.