BILLINGS (AP) — Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg exchanged sharp words Monday in only their second head-to-head debate this campaign season, with each candidate directly dishing — and responding to — attacks that have been dominating state airwaves.
Rehberg used every opportunity to tie Tester to President Barack Obama, who Rehberg argued has brought failed policies on health care, business regulation, taxes and other issues. The Republican on several occasions brought up the pending closure of a nearby coal-fired power plant that has been blamed on environment regulations.
"It also gave us, not so much an energy policy as an environmental policy. You don't have to look very far down the street: a closing Corrette plant," Rehberg said in the opening minutes of the debate at Montana State University-Billings. "That's the kind of economics we have gotten from the failed policies of President Obama — and the failed policies of Sen. Tester."
Tester, a Democrat, defended the government's stimulus efforts as successful and the federal health care law as a necessary start, but he also maintained his independence on many fronts.
"The point is, congressman, you are running against me. You aren't running against President Obama. You could have done that, but you chose not to," Tester said at one point. "He can try to morph me into President Obama because that is who he wants to run against."
Tester said he has gotten the job done on such issues as delisting wolves, bringing needed money back to the state for infrastructure projects, and in other areas. He argued he is best prepared to find needed compromise in Washington, D.C., to break budget and tax stalemates.
Tester hammered Rehberg on several fronts as well. Given a chance to ask Rehberg a question, Tester quizzed him about his 15 taxpayer-paid trips to luxury destinations from Europe to the South Pacific.
Rehberg says the trips were used to gather information, such as learning about Australia's management of endangered species and France's handling of nuclear waste.
"Every trip I have taken has been for the benefit of Montana," Rehberg said.
Tester also brought up Rehberg's past statements that he relies on lobbyists for information — but Rehberg quickly countered that it is Tester who is raising more campaign money from lobbyists.
"The difference is, I accept their information. You accept their cash," Rehberg said.
At nearly every instance, Rehberg sought to pivot to Tester's support of many Obama administration policies.
In closing, Tester identified most in the capacity crowd of about 500 as residents of Billings as he brought up Rehberg's lawsuit against the city fire department for a wildfire on his land.
"Congressman Rehberg has sued each and every one of you," Tester said. "(Firefighters) put their butt on the line. You don't turn around and respond by filing a lawsuit with monetary damages. That is what you did."
Rehberg didn't waste time getting back to his campaign's primary theme.
"No one has brought up the fire lawsuit, except for you," Rehberg said of his meetings around Montana with voters. "You know what they talk about? The irresponsible decisions of supporting President Obama 95 percent of the time."
Some clear tax policy distinctions were made. Rehberg said he wants to eradicate estate taxes altogether, while Tester wants to keep them in place for assets over $10 million per couple. Rehberg said he would ultimately like a flat tax; Tester said he supports changes to the current system that keep tax breaks used by the middle class in place.
The Montana Senate race is one of the most closely watched in the country. It's one of a half dozen or so pure toss-ups that will determine whether Democrats continue to control the Senate or Republicans take it over.
Millions of dollars have been spent by both sides, saturating the state's small television markets with a steady stream of advertising. Polls show few voters are undecided as Rehberg holds a slim lead.
With Obama almost certain to lose in the state, Tester is banking on the state's ticket-splitting tradition in which voters often pick Democrats for lower offices while endorsing the Republican presidential candidate.