The first debate in the closely watched race to represent Illinois' redrawn 8th District highlighted the stark differences between outspoken Chicago-area Republican Congressman Joe Walsh and his Democratic challenger, Iraqi war veteran Tammy Duckworth.
From the economy and taxes to Medicare and gay marriage, the pair clashed during the hour-long televised debate sponsored by WGN-TV. Their race is attracting national attention since Democrats see it as an easy opportunity to win a seat in their fight to regain control of the U.S. House.
Walsh repeatedly referred to the nation's deficit, accusing President Barack Obama's administration of making it worse. He said the best way to reduce it was through tax reductions and job creation.
"I believe you increase revenue by cutting taxes,'' Walsh said, adding that an increase in the number of people holding jobs would also boost revenue.
Duckworth agreed that the debt must be reduced, but said it should be done with cuts in defense spending and an end to tax breaks for millionaires, oil companies and agribusiness.
"Don't balance the budget on the backs of the less fortunate,'' said Duckworth, a former assistant Veterans Affairs secretary in Obama's administration.
Walsh was elected to Congress in 2010, winning a close contest over three-term Democrat Melissa Bean. But his district was redrawn during the latest redistricting, putting him in the same area as first-term Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren. Party leaders asked Walsh to move to a district that's closer to Chicago and considered friendlier ground for Democrats.
Duckworth ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 in another district.
Friday's debate opened with a question about gay marriage, which became a national topic of political discussion this week after North Carolina voters adopted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and Obama announced his support for gay marriage.
Duckworth said she supported gay marriage, while Walsh said he opposed it.
"It is not the most important issue in this campaign,'' Walsh said, adding that he found it curious the president made his views known after the North Carolina vote.
"I've seen a pattern with this president throwing up issue after issue to distract people from what they care about this year,'' he said.
Walsh said it was time for the Congress to deal with the deficit and the problems with Medicaid and Medicare, arguing that the economy "is in worse shape it's been since the Depression.''
Duckworth contended that Walsh has failed to come up with any solutions to the nation's problems, saying he has lived up to his promise to be the poster child for the tea-party movement.
"There hasn't been a crackpot tea party issue he hasn't backed,'' she asserted.
In her closing remarks, Duckworth said she spent her entire life living up to her responsibilities and serving the nation.
"I'm not going to Washington to say yes to Obama or no to (U.S. House) Speaker (John) Boehner,'' she said, adding that there's a need for someone to work hard for the residents of the 8th District.
Walsh said he's the candidate who would get work done in Congress. He said if voters don't want to do anything about the growing problems of Medicare and the deficit, then he wasn't their guy.