PETOSKEY, Mich. (AP) - A standing-room-only crowd and overflow into the lobby showed just what the 1st U.S. House race means to Northern Michigan during the only Lower Peninsula debate Monday night at the North Central Michigan College library.
The seat representing the entire Upper Peninsula and a quarter of the northern Lower Peninsula has been bombarded with political ads in recent weeks to try to settle a rematch between incumbent Congressman Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and former 107th state Rep. Gary McDowell, a Democrat from Rudyard.
For Republicans the seat represents a symbolic 2010 victory over President Barack Obamas national health care plan and retired Congressman Bart Stupak, a Menominee Democrat who held the seat for 19 years.
Democrats see the district as a referendum on the party's poor showing against Tea Party-backed candidates two years ago.
Less polished than the televised presidential bouts audiences have been taking in during the past two weeks, both candidates spoke candidly at times Monday and dragged through their talking points on other issues such as Medicare.
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Addressing the economy first - based on questions generated by debate hosts Interlochen Public Radio and the Petoskey News-Review - set the tempo for a night of different economic visions for righting the country.
"I've talked to hundreds of businesses across this district and their problem has not been finding customers, it has been the government," said Benishek, a surgeon for 30 years prior to taking office. He called for fair regulations from federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration to stop killing small businesses.
Benishek also called for a refining of the tax code to help businesses budget from year to year.
McDowell, a retired UPS driver and a hay farmer in the eastern U.P., said protecting the Great Lakes was critical to protecting the 500,000 jobs Michigan already has and called for a more educated workforce.
"We have to train our workers to be the highest quality possible to compete in a global economy, and we need to make sure we keep taxes low on small businesses so they can grow and promote job growth and hire people," he said.
McDowell went on to add that working class families also need to have lower tax rates to enable them to spend locally in their communities.
McDowell accused his opponent of voting to end federal subsidies for rural airports and loosening restriction on mercury pollution in the Great Lakes, which in turn threatens the half-million related jobs.
"The things Gary just said about me arent true," Benishek said, pegging his opponent as a career politician.
He said he voted more than once to extend the Essential Air Service, which funds per passenger subsidies at rural airports.
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On what specific cuts should be made to prevent continued deficit spending in Washington
"One of the things we have talked about is a 1 percent cut across the board," Benishek said. "I co-sponsored a bill that would make those cuts across the board."
Benishek also advocated funding for programs without a critical need.
Shadowing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romneys call for an end to federal subsidies for National Public Radio, Benishek cited Big Bird as one he would like to see eliminated.
"It's a small thing. Its $440 million - a small thing," he said. "... For every dollar we spend we are borrowing 42 cents, so we are borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Chinese, so we can support public radio."
The congressman continued to encourage people to financially support public radio on their own.
"But I don't think we should be cutting programs to veterans or our warriors to support Big Bird," he said.
McDowell pointed to a report showing 143 government agencies with overlapping or duplicated services by the Government Accountability Office.
"Just looking at that, they estimate we would save $100 billion per year," he said. "And we are still paying farmers not to grow crops. It didn't work when I was a kid and it isn't working now. Its a waste of taxpayer dollars."
Having Medicare negotiate drug prices, McDowell said, rather than the manufactures would save another $156 billion per year.
The former three-term state representative likened Benishek's 1 percent cut across the board cut to asking a family to make the same cut.
"Are you going to cut $10 from food and $10 from going to the movies or something that is discretionary like that?" McDowell asked. "That's not how you are going to solve it. You are going to have to look at every program and decide which ones have merits, which ones have value and cut and get rid of the ones that don't."
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Spilling from deficit into Medicare - the most politicized subject in the 1st Congressional District race - McDowell accused Benishek of cutting $6,400 per senior to give tax breaks to the wealthy.
Benishek again called McDowell a career politician who was saying something false.
"Medicare is going to (be) out of money in 10 years unless we do something about it," Benishek said, citing the U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan budget plan he voted to put in place. He added that the Obamacare Affordable Care Act would cut $700 billion from Medicare and $69 million from Emmet County.
"That's $69 million right here in Emmet County for doctors, for nursing homes right here in Emmet County," Benishek said.
McDowell took a rebuttal to say he would never vote to cut or ration Medicare.
"The Congressmans charge that he just made, according to (Politifact.com), is pants on fire. That means he just made it up folks," McDowell said.
He then coined the plan as the Benishek/Ryan budget.
Later defending the Ryan plan, Benishek worked to explain how his plan would impact Medicare as people currently know it.
"Our plan doesn't change the Medicare benefit for anyone 55 (years old) or older," Benishek said. "For people 54 (years-old or less) it gives them the option to either stay on traditional Medicare or offer a private insurance plan paid for by their Medicare premium that might suit their family better."
Benishek said opening up Medicare would bring the cost down to deal with the $1 trillion per year Medicare costs that need to be addressed to remain viable.
Moving to the central question on whether all Americans should have health insurance, neither candidate committed, rather said there should only be access.
"All Americans should have the ability to have access to affordable, quality health care," McDowell said, responding first. Right now the Affordable (Care Act) was upheld by the Supreme Court. I do have concerns about the increases in prices for our small businesses and states. We need to continue to move forward to find a way that every American is covered up front. Thats how we will get our health care costs down.
He also advocated pre-screening and wellness programs to help avoid larger catastrophic costs.
Congressman Benishek said simply health care is too expensive. He pointed to mandates as driving up the cost of health care and questioned why there wasn't a free market system for health care to keep insurance accessible by being affordable.
"Why can't you (choose) insurance you want to have, so that you can get a less expensive policy that would cover a major incident or not cover things you don't need? There are a lot of options to cutting the cost of health care."
He continued on to call for tort reform to prevent larger lawsuits.
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One of the more lighthearted, crowd pleasing moments during the debate came when McDowell used a rebuttal to address the Republican accusation that he is a career politician for serving more than 20 years as a county commissioner in Chippewa County and another six in the Michigan House. Speaking of his wife, who was in attendance, he joked:
"For those 33 years I got up every morning and put on that brown uniform on, went to work at UPS, got home changed into my blue jeans and went out and worked on the farm to work and also raise a family - she's asking me now, I hear them calling you a career politician and saying I want to know where you were going for those 33 years."
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Both candidates called for protecting the Great Lakes and traded barbs over regulation, but one of the most defining moments during the debate came from an unlikely questions about whether climate change was impacting the bodies of water.
Despite a tough reception from some in the audience, Benishek attempted to dismiss global warming by questioning whether the methodology had been tainted through politics.
"Frankly, I'm not sure how significant global warming is," Benishek said. "I'm a scientist. I've studied medicine. I've written research papers, done peer review journals. ...I don't think we should be spending trillions of dollars not knowing what the long-term effects of the climate are. Thirty years ago they were talking about global cooling."
McDowell said he is concerned about global warming and the dropping lake levels in lakes Michigan and Huron.
"The climate is definitely warm. We don't get the ice cover we used to on the Great Lakes," he said, noting the end result.
"I think pretty much every scientist who is not working for BP, the Koch brothers or Dr. Benishek agree we have to do something," he said.
Benishek rebutted that people have to have a solid cause-and-effect before taking action on the lake levels issue.
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Turning to Afghanistan and Iran for the final questions, Benishek was able to speak without emotion reservation about his time working at the VA hospital in Iron Mountain and his time on the House veterans affairs committee.
Under the current rules of engagement, he believes we should bring the troops home.
"I don't want Afghanistan to be a place where terrorists can organize and attack us here at home, but I have been to Afghanistan and I have been to Walter Reed Hospital. I worked for the VA for 20 years and under the rules of engagement, I don't want our troops there under those rules."
McDowell, who started the discussion, also said we need to get our troops home as soon as possible. Especially with the Arab spring that is taking place this past year.
He advocates a mobile force and being vigilant in supporting anti-terrorism efforts, and the veterans coming home.
On whether they would support action on the ground in Iran, Benishek said the cost of war should never be spent unless there is a declaration of war.
"The time for the administration and presidents to put our guys and gals on the ground somewhere else without a declaration of war is gone," he said. "Our people are too valuable to be allowing a president of either party to be doing that.
Continuing, Benishek said, he doesn't feel we should be the worlds policemen.
McDowell said he believes the sanctions against Iran is the right route and agreed with Benishek that lives are too valuable to go to war unless it is a last resort.
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The latest Federal Election Commission campaign reports released Monday show both men have a similar amounts of cash left for the next three weeks. Congressman Benishek has $570,835 and McDowell has $603,813 in cash on hand to use in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
The two candidates will meet again twice this week at forums in Traverse City and Alpena.
Although a second debate was being targeted for Northern Michigan University in Marquette, the debate has been canceled and another location in the Upper Peninsula is being sought.