WINGATE In the latest faceoff for one of the most competitive congressional seats in the country, the 8th District candidates sparred Monday over Medicare, Social Security and other issues crucial to senior citizens.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell said he opposes any changes to those two programs, while Republican Richard Hudson said hed favor offering retirement choices to those now his age (40) and younger.
The candidates answered questions, including some from an audience of retirees, during an AARP-sponsored forum at Wingate University. And both ingratiated themselves early with the crowd by saying hello from the stage to their mothers.
But their styles were as different as their takes on so-called entitlement reform.
Hudson, the GOP challenger from Concord, played the aggressor: He bunched Kissell with Washington politicians who must answer for everything from skyrocketing debt to out-of-control spending.
And on Medicare and Social Security, which are on the road to bankruptcy, Hudson said, Kissell and others in Congress continue to just kick the can down the road.
The two-term Kissell barely mentioned Hudson. He cast himself as a moderate who has been critical of both parties including their approaches to the promises of Social Security and Medicare.
I will work with anybody that keeps the promises to our seniors, said Kissell, who voted against President Barack Obamas Affordable Care Act, citing some of its effects on funding for senior care. And I will oppose anyone who threatens this promise, whether its through privatization or vouchers or restructuring.
Kissell, of Biscoe in Montgomery County, is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic congressmen in the country, mostly because the GOP-controlled N.C. General Assembly redrew the boundaries of the 8th District to make it more Republican-friendly.
The former textile worker and high school teacher has declined to endorse Obama for re-election and didnt attend the partys national convention in Charlotte. Analysts say he must attract Republican voters 28,000 more of them now live in the 8th.
That explains one of the campaign signs his supporters planted outside the debate hall: Another conservative for Kissell, it read.
The district now stretches from Davidson County to Robeson County, including just a sliver of Mecklenburg. Once a noted textile manufacturing region, the 8th has been struggling economically for years.
But Monday, the spotlight was mostly on financial security issues affecting the districts sizable elderly population.
Hudson and Kissell agreed that Congress should stop raiding the Social Security Trust Fund to cover other government expenses, though Hudson charged that Kissell had voted for a Democratic budget resolution in the House that would have effectively abandoned the Trust Fund.
Kissells staff later denied that, as well as Hudsons charge repeated often during the debate that Kissell, who angered Democrats with his votes against Obamacare, had actually voted 23 other times to maintain the controversial health care plan.
But during the debate, Kissells only solution to saving Social Security and Medicare, even with the stress of millions of Baby Boomers retiring, was to have Congress stop borrowing from the funds and restore the lost interest.
He said he opposed so-called entitlement reform, saying privatization or vouchers would amount to breaking promises to those coming up who have been paying into these programs.
How do you determine an (age) cutoff? he said, referring to those who would be caught in the transition from one setup to another. Are we going to say, Sorry, we changed the rules on you?
Hudson said he would oppose any changes to those programs for those in or near retirement. But he said both Social Security and Medicare were on the road to bankruptcy if nothing is done to preserve them.
Hudson said he would offer younger people still years away from retirement a choice stick with traditional Medicare or use the money they would pay into the system to buy private health insurance.
Similarly, Hudson said, the surest way to bankrupt Social Security is the status quo do nothing.
The names Obama and Romney did not come up during the debate, as both candidates tried to portray themselves as above partisan politics and open to bipartisan compromise.
Hudson, who has served in Washington as a chief of staff to GOP House members, told the crowd he was fed up with members of Congress who only cared about keeping their seats.
Kissell, whose various votes have put him at odds with Democratic leaders, said he had seen both parties use seniors as bargaining chips.
With six weeks before the election, meanwhile, both national parties are taking a closer look at the 8th District race as they decide how to divvy up their congressional campaign cash.
This week, Kissell is the target of another attack ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
It used the endangered congressmans voting record to hit him for the failed stimulus, tax hikes and outsourcing. The ads kicker: More jobs for China, fewer jobs for us.
The NRCC is spending $290,000 to air the ad on Charlotte stations.
Democratic Party groups have said theyll spend just as much trying to re-elect Kissell. But on Monday, The Washington Post reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had cancelled a second week of its ad reservation in Kissells district. That could be another sign that Kissell faces tough odds, though the DCCC still has ad time reserved for the final three weeks.
Hudson may benefit from the coattails of Romney and Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor.
But Hudson, unlike Kissell, is still an unknown to many in the district, even though he served for a time as chief of staff to Robin Hayes, the GOP congressman Kissell beat in 2008. John Frank of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.