By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican challenger Ken Buck agreed about plenty of finer points at a debate Monday night on the Auraria campus, but the two candidates drew sharp distinctions on bigger questions.
During a lightning round devoted to health care policy, the two answered many of the rapid-fire questions the same way. Both Buck and Bennet said they favored making health insurance portable across state lines, requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions and covering preventative care, and instituting tort reform.
The candidates differed, however, on embryonic stem cell research, whether parents’ insurance policies should be required to cover adult children, and whether the health care bill passed by Congress this year is constitutional, with Bennet favoring each and Buck taking the opposite position. Asked whether they favored closing the so-called “donut hole” in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, Bennet said he did, while Buck said he didn’t know.
“Until the very end, Ken Buck was almost for the health care reform bill,” Bennet joked.
Not so fast, Buck shot back. “But how would we know in those 2,400 pages and those 10 tax increases?” he said, later stating firmly: “Just so it’s clear, my position on the health care bill: We need to repeal this health care bill.”
Buck also warned against allowing “the 16,500 IRS agents that are funded in the health care bill” and said he would do everything possible to roll back a requirement that small businesses file what he called burdensome paperwork to help pay for the bill.
The candidates also clashed over the war in Afghanistan, immigration policy and how they would handle congressional earmarks.
It’s the fourth time the candidates have met for a debate, following earlier contests last month in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs and a more heated hour late last week in Pueblo. Three more debates are scheduled, including one sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber in downtown Denver on Friday, a joint appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday and a CBS4-Colorado Public Television debate set for Oct. 23.
Monday’s debate was sponsored by the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, 9News and The Denver Post and took place at the school’s King Center. 9News anchor Adele Arakawa moderated questions from the TV station’s political reporter Adam Schrager and the newspaper’s Allison Sherry. Both reporters posed numerous questions submitted by viewers and readers. Audience members also asked questions throughout the debate.
The debate fell the night before county clerks across the state were set to put ballots in the mail to Colorado voters and a week before early voting begins. Polling since the August primary election has given a slight edge to Buck, the Weld County district attorney, over Bennet, who was appointed in January 2009 to fill the term of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The race — which could determine whether Republicans take control of the Senate after the fall election — has drawn intense nationwide scrutiny and, according to media analyses, more third-party spending than any other contest in the country, including millions of dollars for TV advertising.
Schrager gave the candidates a chance to respond to the avalanche of negative advertising, asking, “What is the one issue out there said about you that offends you the most?”
“Wow. Just one thing?” Buck asked. “I have to tell you,” he continued, “I don’t know who Sen. Bennet is running those ads against, but I don’t think I would vote for that guy when I watch some of those commercials.”
Buck said the attack ads that bother him the most are one going after his positions on Social Security, including ads that charge he wants to privatize the system, claims he says are frightening senior citizens. Blasting Bennet for saying he’ll wait for a commission’s recommendations on entitlement reform — and quoting a Denver Post writer who called Bennet’s charges “smears” that took quotes dramatically out of context — Buck said he was at least putting reform proposals out there.
“Mr. Bennet said he is going to Washington to change the system. He has come back to Colorado with the very faults he said he was going to correct,” Buck lamented.
Buck’s current proposals include leaving Social Security alone for older Americans, looking at means-testing and raising the retirement age based on life expectancy for middle-aged workers, and allowing younger workers to set aside additional money for their retirement through the plan.
“I’m trying to make Social Security sustainable for younger people,” Buck said. “I’m trying to put ideas on the table.”
As it did throughout the debate, Bennet’s campaign blasted out e-mails to reporters disputing Buck’s statements and accusing the Republican of flip-flopping his positions. Buck was opposed to means-testing earlier in the campaign, according to an interview cited by the Bennet campaign, and was in favor of overhauling Social Security into a privatized system when he was running in the GOP primary, according to numerous interviews, statements and even a “truth test” performed by Schrager.
“I have not criticized the Social Security plan that Ken Buck has talked about in the general election,” Bennet said from the stage. “But it’s the privatization of Social Security that he talked about throughout the entire Republican primary that seniors have raised questions with me about.”
Bennet said even his own 11-year-old daughter recently threatened to run a negative ad against him if he didn’t follow through on a promise to get a dog for the family after the election, describing what the barrage of attacks feels like.
“What’s most offensive to me about it,” he said, “is there’s been millions and millions of dollars poured into Colorado trying to steal this election from Colorado’s voters, and that’s just wrong.”
Rather than isolate a single attack that bothered him most, Bennet picked a couple. He enlisted Buck as an ally against one of the attacks. An ad run by a third-party group accuses Bennet of cutting Medicare by $500 billion, but, Bennet said, “even Ken Buck rejected that charge at the last debate, although the people that support his campaign continue to run these ads.” At the debate in Pueblo, Buck commiserated with Bennet over being the target of misleading claims, including ones about the Medicare cuts, which he said Republicans had made unfairly.
Bennet also decried ads he said that “make up stories” about what he did as superintendent of Denver Public Schools and charges he’s raised taxes. Since he was sworn in, Bennet said, “98 percent of Coloradans are paying lower taxes.”
Asked by Iraqi war veteran and Marine Matt Koren how to proceed in Afghanistan, the two candidates agreed the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in “nation-building” but disagreed on specifics.
“We should do whatever we can in the coming months to support the Pakistani military as they try to stamp out the remnants of al-Qaida in the Afghan-Pakistan border,” Bennet said, as well as help the Pakistani military secure that country’s nuclear weapons.
“Then I think we ought to start bringing people home in July ’11, because this is the longest shooting war in our country’s history and, among other things, we simply cannot afford it any more.” He continued: “I would not support any nation-building in Afghanistan, and I don’t think we can bring peace to that region, so I would rather bring our young men and women home.”
Buck said he agrees with President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan but disagrees on setting a timetable. “I don’t think we signal to our opponents when we’re going to bring folks home.” He listed as the primary U.S. goals making sure the country isn’t a safe haven for terrorists, disrupting the drug trade and “leave a minimal military force there to deal with the tribes and make sure that the Taliban doesn’t continue to grow and take over the country,” he said.
Then Buck summed up: “We can’t nation-build in Afghanistan the way we did with the Marshall Plan in Germany. It’s a fundamental mistake to assume that a people as backward as the Afghans are going to be able to build the industrialized nation and the democracy that it takes to be able to achieve what we would consider a western-style democracy. We have to be realistic about our goals. I think we have been there far too long, I think we have to give our troops an exit strategy and get out of there when we can.”
Before answering the next question, Bennet shot back at Buck’s proposal. “When we say things like we need to deal with the Taliban, and we need to make sure the Taliban don’t take over the country, it is the same thing as saying we’re going to be there forever,” he said. “And we owe better than that to our troops.”
Lightening the mood a bit, Sherry asked both candidates to name the most beautiful part of the state.
Bennet declined to take the bait.
“There is no way I’m going to pick a most beautiful part of the state,” he laughed, “so I’ll say anywhere I am in the state with our three girls and with Susan (Daggett, his wife).”
Buck, who lives in Greeley, gave an answer that was slightly less diplomatic.
“I can’t give you one place,” Buck said, “but my wife and I, traveling this state on this campaign, have picked about 10 retirement places. It seems like every time we go to a place like Pagosa Springs, or Ouray, or Silverthorne, we say, ‘You know, this is where we’re going to retire.’ And then we get in the car, we go to McDonald’s, we go to the next place, and we’re going to retire there too, so it’s a tough choice. But if I had to pick one, it would be beautiful Greeley, Colorado.”