Senate rivals try to link each other to problems

Democrat Kay Hagan on Saturday sought to tie Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole to public discontent with Washington, especially regarding the economy and the war in Iraq.

Dole responded by connecting Hagan, a state senator, with rising state budgets and taxes and a lack of action on immigration in Raleigh.

The first face-to-face forum in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race – held before hundreds of lawyers at the N.C. Bar Association convention – was at times a contentious affair. For the most part, Hagan played the aggressor against Dole, one of the best-known women in American politics.

Hagan, a Greensboro attorney making her first run for statewide office, said that Dole shares the blame for the failures of Washington, including rising gas prices, an unpopular war in Iraq and the lack of universal health care. She said Dole had voted with President Bush 92 percent of the time.

“People talk a lot about experience, a lot about major-league clout,” Hagan said. “But consider this: When it comes to Sen. Dole and her 40 years experience in Washington, experience just means a way of doing business – a way of doing business that puts special interests and their lobbyists before working families.”

Dole mainly talked about her broad experience in Washington, her efforts to save N.C. military bases from closing and her role in the buyout of the federal tobacco program. Dole said she wants to run a positive campaign and called on Hagan to oppose any TV ad campaigns by third parties – a challenge to which Hagan did not respond.

But after taking several shots from Hagan, Dole said she had had enough.

“My opponent has a long history of increasing North Carolina taxes across the board,” Dole said. “Whether it's sales tax, income tax, food tax, liquor tax, tobacco tax, tax on the wealthy tax on the middle income, tax on the low income... She has a record of turning a blind eye to immigration enforcement.”

This was not only the first debate of the U.S. Senate race, but it also offered a bit of history. It paired two female candidates against each other for the first time in a Senate contest in North Carolina.

Both sides could carry away something from the debate. Hagan showed she could go toe-to-toe with Dole, a former presidential candidate, two-time Cabinet secretary and former head of the American Red Cross. Dole proved that she had not lost a step when it came to politics, and that she still has the mettle for a big-time political campaign.

Both candidates often tried to steer toward the political middle. On the war in Iraq, which Dole has supported and Hagan has opposed, both muted their position.

“We have got to end this war in Iraq,” said Hagan, adding that the war had not made the U.S. safer, had made new enemies and had alienated allies. But she said the war needs to be ended “in a responsible fashion” with the country mounting “a diplomatic surge.”

Dole warned against “a precipitous withdrawal,” but said Iraq needs to begin picking up the costs of reconstruction.

“I have been very frustrated that the administration was so slow in changing a strategy that was obviously not working,” Dole said. “Many mistakes were made.”

The issue of immigration created sparks. Dole has made a crackdown on illegal immigrants who commit crimes a major thrust of her re-election campaign. She has helped put together a program with local sheriffs, allowing them to identify and begin deportation proceedings against people who entered the country without proper authority.

But Hagan suggested that Dole did have much to boast about.

“This is another example of where Washington is broken,” Hagan said. “Senator Dole has been in Washington for over 40 years. This problem has been there for a very long time. Since the Bush administration began, we currently have another five million illegal immigrants in this country.”

Hagan said she supports increased border security and opposes amnesty. But she said immigration is really a federal problem, rather than a state one, and dismissed the sheriffs' program as a “patchwork” program and an unfunded federal mandate on the states.

Dole, for her part, criticized Hagan for backing a state law that she said made it easier for illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in North Carolina.

“There is no question that if our state had had tougher laws earlier ... we would not be faced with the issues that we are faced with now,” Dole said.