AP Photo/Michael Albans
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., left, listens with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in Big Sky on Saturday during the first debate of the 2012 election.
BIG SKY — Montana voters heard clear differentiation and contrasts between their three candidates for U. S. Senate during the campaign’s first debate, held at the Montana Newspaper Association annual conference in Big Sky Saturday.
They also heard sometimes contentious digs at the two main-party candidates.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who gave up his chance to run for a seventh term to challenge Tester, and Libertarian candidate Dave Cox, a Hamilton businessman, debated for more than 90 minutes.
In his closing remarks, Cox took a shot at both of his opponents, saying he is the only one who will stand for constitutional rights.
“I think what we are really kind of seeing here is two sides of the same coin, ” he said. “You have two sides that bicker back and forth, but at the end of the day, the only thing you really end up with is an increase of government. ”
“When government increases, your freedoms recede, ” he added.
Tester, in his closing remarks, continued his campaign claim that, as a Montana farmer who still works the farm in the Big Sandy area homesteaded by his grandparents, he takes Montana values back to Washington, and took a shot at Rehberg in the process.
“Farming and agriculture is part of my blood, ” Tester said. “Building houses and mansion-ranching is not ranching. And to say you are — when the congressman hasn’t sold a cow or goat in years and years and years — is very, very unfortunate. ”
Rehberg contested Tester’s Montana values, saying Tester is a surrogate for the Obama administration, not a voice for Montana.
“People ask me why I am running for the United States Senate, ” he said. “I say, ‘You need a voice in the Senate. You don’t have one now. ’”
He also defended his ranching heritage and ownership of his family’s ranch on the Heights by Billings, saying he had been working in partnership with the owners of the Helena-area Sieben Ranch — relatives of Sen. Max Baucus — until he sold his livestock operation last year.
“See, I have a herding operation, and I guess somebody doesn’t know the difference between farming and ranching, ” he added.
“How do you build a more secure future for the people of Montana? ” Rehberg asked. “Well you don’t get into petty partisan politics of attacks. ”
After then saying the way to build a more secure future is to cut back on government regulations and taxation, he said the debt has nearly doubled in the six years Tester has been in office, and cited a complaint that Tester has received significant contributions from the banking industry after he tried to delay implementation of a ban on bank swipe card fees.
The work of the two main campaigns began before the debate had truly gotten under way — the introduction of the moderator, Associated Press regional editor Jim Anderson and the newspaper reporters asking the questions started shortly after 2 p. m., with the candidates then being given 5 minutes each to make opening remarks.
The Havre Daily News received its first debate email — a “debate fact check” from Rehberg Press Shop claiming Tester is a partisan rubberstamp — at 2:15 p. m.
The Havre Daily received its last debate email — the total was 15 from the Tester camp and seven from the Rehberg side — at 4:03 p. m. The debate ended about 3:45 p. m.
The audience often was more contentious than the debate.
Several Tester supporters carried signs attacking Rehberg, accusing him of attacking women’s rights and Social Security, and a contingent arrived in bright yellow T-shirts with the logo “Firefighters for Tester. ”
Moderator Jim Anderson, regional editor for The Associated Press, repeatedly had to ask people who cheered and applauded Tester during his comments — and sometimes jeered Rehberg during his — to hold their noise until the end of the debate.
Before the debate started, he said that the candidates themselves asked for people to hold their noise until the end.
“We have all campaign season for applause, catcalls, what have you, ” Anderson said. “Let’s hold it till then, OK? ”
Tester did the same a few times during the debate, telling his supporters, “You’re using up my time, ” at one point.
The three candidates did make a clear differentiation of their positions.
Cox said he would oppose anything, with no compromise available, for anything that he sees as violating the constitution.
“We need a government that can fit inside our Constitution, ” he said, adding at one point that the first thing Congress should do next session is cut taxes, and the next thing is to cut spending.
He quoted President George Washington, saying government, like fire, is a troublesome servant and a fearful master.
“Right now it’s a wildfire streaming across America …, ” Cox said. “What we have right now, is we have an entire Congress full of arsonists who are spreading that fire that George Washington warned us about, and, if you really want a change, vote for the firefighter, because I’m going to pour a lot of water on it. ”
Rehberg said that what got him involved in politics in the first place was that, when he and his parents inherited the family ranch, estate taxes — “the death tax, ” he called it at several points in the debate — forced them to sell one-third of the ranch.
He said in his closing statement, “How do you build a more secure future? “You remove the impediment of the government. It’s not a government solution. That seems to be the solution of today. ”
In his opening remarks, Tester cited his record which he said includes making “responsible” spending and tax cuts, ensuring women have the right to make their own medical decisions, ensuring women get equal pay for equal work and ensuring military veterans receive the benefits they have been promised.