HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colorado (AP) — Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and his Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff, clashed over immigration, campaign finance and the budget on Thursday, in the first debate in one of the most competitive, expensive and closely watched House contests in the nation.

Colorado’s 6th Congressional District is evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and both parties and their supporters are pouring funds into the battle between three-term incumbent Coffman and Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker.

On Thursday morning before a standing-room-only crowd, Coffman portrayed himself as a leader willing to cut waste in the military budget and take bold steps for the country’s good. Romanoff fashioned himself as a nonpartisan, solutions-oriented candidate appalled by Washington gridlock.

At one point Romanoff, who refuses to accept contributions from political action committees, asked Coffman to agree to a deal refusing all “special interest” money in the race. Coffman, who comes from a military family and is the only congressman to fight in both the Gulf and Iraq Wars, declined.

Immigration has been a flashpoint in the district, which Democrats redrew after the 2010 election to move Coffman from terrain formerly represented by immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo to an area that is 20 percent Hispanic. Coffman began studying Spanish and announced his support for letting people brought into the country illegally as children earn citizenship through military service. On Thursday, the congressman called for a “step-by-step” approach on immigration that begins with securing the border, but he said he opposed “a special path to citizenship for adults who knowingly broke the law.”

Romanoff responded that Coffman’s proposal isn’t “a substitute for the comprehensive immigration reform this nation so desperately needs.” He reiterated his support for the bipartisan Senate bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million people living here illegally and bolster border security. Coffman opposed the Senate bill, which died in the GOP-controlled House.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado (credit: CBS)

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado (credit: CBS)

Andrew Romanoff (credit: CBS)

Andrew Romanoff (credit: CBS)

Romanoff’s first television commercial calls for a balanced budget amendment, but Coffman and the debate moderator challenged him to name specific cuts that would erase the deficit. Instead, Romanoff spoke of growing the economy and breaking what he described as a special-interest stranglehold on Washington. As an example, he called for letting the federal government negotiate bulk discounts on pharmaceuticals, an effort the industry has repeatedly squelched and one that he said could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

Coffman said he opted out of the congressional health plan and bought his insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange, which was significantly worse. “If every member of congress did what I did, Obamacare would not be standing today,” he said, earning cheers and boos when he called for repealing the law.

Romanoff replied: “It’d be a good idea to fix the law rather than repeal it and replace it with nothing but empty phrases.”

The two candidates largely agreed on foreign policy. Coffman said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and criticized the Bush administration’s handling of Afghanistan as well. “We want to be idealistic on foreign policy and believe everything is black and white, and often it’s in shades of grey,” Coffman said. “We need a much more realistic American foreign policy.”

Romanoff agreed and repeatedly praised Coffman’s military service. But he made clear he saw the incumbent as part of the problem in Washington. “If we elect the same crowd that is running congress today, nothing is going to change,” he said.

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By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press

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