DENVER (CBS4) – Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Cory Gardner skirmished over their visions for Colorado’s economy during a prickly debate on Tuesday that featured aggressive attacks from both candidates.
The wide-ranging one-hour debate touched on women’s issues, the Islamic State and the Second Amendment. But bickering about the economy — and intertwining issues like the Affordable Care Act, the Keystone XL pipeline, jobs reports and U.S. debt — dominated.
Gardner, who is challenging Udall for his U.S. Senate seat, broadly hammered the incumbent for backing a government-intensive approach to the economy. Udall, meanwhile, accused Gardner of hands-off policies that would ensure the middle class suffers while companies increase profits.
Udall said the government should raise the minimum wage, pass the Paycheck Fairness Act that would largely ensure gender-pay equality, make college more affordable and create incentives for companies to keep jobs in the country.
“Why do I bring this up? It’s because Congressman Gardner has a different point of view on all of those issues,” Udall said. “If we don’t respond, we run the risk of the middle class not being the strong part of our society that it’s always been.”
Gardner countered that a more laissez-faire economic approach would benefit Colorado.
“It is beyond time we got government out of the way and let America work,” he said. “We must unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of this county.”
Gardner attacked Udall’s economic record with a bevy of statistics: that Coloradans are earning $4,000 less in median household income than they were several years ago, that the labor force participation rate is at its lowest percentage in 36 years and that Udall isn’t firmly backing the construction of the Keystone pipeline, which Gardner said would bring thousands jobs that pay $20 to $30 an hour.
“That’s what’s happening under the failed leadership of Mark Udall,” Gardner said. “We need more Colorado in Washington and less Washington in Colorado. Unfortunately our economy is stuck in reverse.”
Udall countered that Gardner was sour on the state.
“Congressman, you know I’m never downbeat on Colorado,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of challenges. We’ve shown our mettle. I don’t care what we’ve been through, you don’t talk down Colorado.”
The debate was the pair’s second of three this week. On Monday, they also sparred mostly over economic concerns, including financial issues related to climate change, carbon taxes and Medicaid.
The race is considered a toss-up with Gardner leading by 0.6 percentage points, according to poll averages.
Gardner not only tried to tie Udall to a still-sometimes stymied economy, he painted the senator as walking lockstep with President Barack Obama, whose policies and ratings have fallen with Americans.
“You are tied — hook, line and sinker — to the president, who admitted that the two of you are together on the ballot,” said Gardner, who repeated often that the president’s policies are “going to be on the ballot” and that Udall shares Obama’s stances.
Udall didn’t deny that he supported Obama on many issues — but he took pains to clarify that he backed any president, whether Obama or George W. Bush, if he thought the policy was sound. He also told Gardner to recall whose names will be on the ballot.
“I want to remind Congressman Gardner he’s running against me, not Barack Obama … not Harry Reid,” Udall said.
But Gardner didn’t back off the comparison — saying that Reid, the Senate majority leader, was the No. 1 reason why Congress is dysfunctional and meandering.
The candidates were also asked how they’d rein in U.S. debt that has ballooned to nearly $18 trillion. The debate turned immediately to the Affordable Care Act, which Udall supports and Gardner opposes.
“We can start addressing the issue of our national debt by repealing Obamacare, which adds hundreds of billions of dollars in debt to our economy,” Gardner said.
The representative said he would kill costly duplicative programs and make sure Congress spends within its own means. He also said he supports a balanced budget agreement — something he acknowledged that Udall supported but exempted large portions of spending from it.
“We are spending money that future generations simply cannot handle,” he said. “It will break our economy.”
Udall said Gardner’s approach would put health care consumers at the mercy of insurance companies.
“You heard Congressman Gardner say again he would repeal the Affordable Care Act. That would take us backward,” Udall said, adding sarcastically: “Let’s put the insurance companies in charge. That would be a great day.”
He accused Gardner of wanting to privatize Medicare and gut Social Security. Gardner denied those claims and, in a bit of back-and-forth, said it was Udall who had cut $800 billion from Medicare Advantage, a type of Medicare plan that’s administered by private companies.
But Udall said those charges were misleading and that he redirected money, not cut it, to keep insurance companies from profiting: “Congressman, it takes real gumption to stand up here and accuse me of cutting Medicare.”
Debate over climate change also seeped into their clashes over the economy.
When the candidates were asked to merely provide a “yes” or “no” answer to a question, Gardner refused to say whether he believed humans were significantly responsible for climate change.
“These are very important issues that cannot simply be described as ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And that’s why it’s important that when it comes to things like our environment that we talk about how, yes, the climate is changing. But I disagree to the extent that man is causing it,” Gardner said.
“I refuse to destroy our economy like Sen. Udall would in order to pursue some radical ideas,” he continued.
Udall said it’s “radical” that Gardner denies humans largely cause climate change. The country, he argued, would benefit economically if it led the way on developing alternative fuels.
“We seeing the effects (of climate change) in our farm economy and our ski industry,” Udall said. “We’re going to innovate and have new jobs.”
Udall and Gardner also addressed social and local issues on Tuesday — gun control legislation, Colorado’s personhood amendment, their response to last year’s massive flooding and illegal immigration, among others.
Udall tried to lump Gardner’s positions on birth control, gender pay and abortion into claims that Gardner doesn’t support women. But the representative often maneuvered those efforts toward discussions about the economy. Likewise, Udall redirected any talk of President Obama back toward Gardner’s positions on women.
The two will debate again on Thursday in Pueblo.
Gardner has represented Colorado’s fourth U.S. House district since 2010. Udall was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008 after serving the state’s second congressional district from 1999 to 2009.
– Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com