UPDATE: Here’s a preview of the story that will appear in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.
The top contenders for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat pulled few punches as they squared off in their first public debate.
If Saturday’s forum set the tone for the remainder of the campaign, then the 2010 election season could be one of most bitter House races in years.
From his opening remarks Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald came out swinging at GOP incumbent Denny Rehberg, criticizing Rehberg’s work ethic and accusing him of voting for policies that lead to the nation’s current financial crisis.
Rehberg, who is seeking his sixth term as Montana’s sole representative in the House, responded by that if McDonald is elected he would be “another ‘yes’ man” for liberal leaders in Washington D.C.
Mike Fellows, the long-shot Libertarian candidate who has run in each of the past four House elections, also participated in the debate, which was hosted by the Montana Newspaper Association. For his part, Fellows said neither party can be trusted to represent the American people.
“It doesn’t matter who is charge in Washington, D.C.,” Fellows said. “We see the country continue to grow these deficits no matter if it is the Bush administration or the Obama administration.”
The verbal blows between the top two candidates came early and often throughout the 75 minute debate as Rehberg and McDonald took turns pacing the stage, defending their positions and jabbing at their opponent’s record. Fellows, who was positioned on stage between the Democrat and Republican, remained seated throughout the debate.
The discourse between McDonald and Rehberg took on a confrontational tone from the outset.
McDonald, a former California trial lawyer who has ranched in Montana since the early 1970s, went on the personal attack by criticizing Rehberg for subdividing his family’s ranch near Billings years ago.
“He’s not a rancher. He’s a land developer and a professional politician who spent 20 years eating out of the public trough,” McDonald said. “To turn things around, we need a congressman who doesn’t go to Washington, go to sleep in his office, and do nothing for Montana for the last 10 years. We need a congressman who has a different view, who works hard every day to make sure that Montanans have opportunities.”
Unwilling to let McDonald’s personal attack slide, Rehberg fired back.
“It’s hard not to get a little offended when somebody thinks they know your background and tries to give a little story that may sound cute,” Rehberg said.
Rehberg said one of the reasons he decided to run for Congress was because he had to sell-off parts of his family’s ranch, “just to pay the down payment on the estate tax.”
“You know what I am? I’m really good at managing an agricultural business. That’s the kind of person you want back in Washington, D.C. Not one that can tell cutesy stories but may not be anywhere close to the truth,” Rehberg said.
Wrapping up his opening statement, Rehberg said, “you need somebody who is tested and tried. You need somebody who is not a ‘yes’ man for (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and (President) Barack Obama.”
Read more about Saturday’s debate in tomorrow’s Tribune. I’ll try to post some more observations from this morning’s debate Monday. Specifically, I was surprised at how often Democratic Sens. Jon Tester’s and Max Baucus’ names came up during a U.S. House debate.
But don’t take my word for it:
You can download the full audio from the debate by right-clicking here (32 MB, Widows Media) and choosing “save link as,” or you can simply click the play button on the media player below. The full running time is 1:16:06.
Take a listen and post your thoughts on the first U.S. House debate here.