Candidates hold 1st debate in Wash. US Senate race

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi argued about taxes and the role of government during their first debate of the campaign Thursday evening.

The debate produced few fireworks as the candidates stuck to well-worn themes that have been featured in a barrage of television ads.

Murray, who is seeking a fourth term, continually hammered Rossi for supporting extension of the Bush-era tax cuts that benefit the wealthy. She said those tax breaks take away revenue that could be used for Social Security, Medicare and health programs.

“If Mr. Rossi gets his way and extends the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans to the tune of almost $1 trillion, there is no way to sustain the programs so important to us,” Murray said.

Rossi hammered Murray as a three-term incumbent who constantly voted for bigger government programs and more government control of business.

“You have an 18-year incumbent killing jobs in the state of Washington in vote after vote after vote,” Rossi said. “I want to allow entrepreneurs to be successful.”

Although polls have been inconclusive, the race is thought to be close as Murray seeks a fourth term and Democrats try to hold control of the Senate.

The hourlong debate was in the studios of public television station KSPS. The candidates’ second and last scheduled debate is Sunday in Seattle, hosted by KOMO-TV.

Before the debate, a man drove past the studio building several times brandishing a meat cleaver out the window of his vehicle as supporters of both candidates waved signs. The man’s intent was not clear, but he was detained by Spokane police.

As she has done throughout the campaign, Murray sought to paint Rossi as a friend to Wall Street and big banks. Rossi, a real estate developer who has twice lost races for governor, branded Murray as a big-spending liberal.

Murray, 60, was elected to the Senate in 1992, 1998 and 2004. Her campaign has drawn visits from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Rossi, 50, lost to Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire by 133 votes in 2004 after two recounts. He lost to her by nearly 200,000 votes in 2008. He is seeking to capitalize on anti-incumbent sentiment in a state that has voted Democrat the past six presidential elections.

The candidates referred constantly to the fight over extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to individuals making more than $200,000. They also disagreed over health care reform, which Rossi opposes.

Murray highlighted her efforts to expand programs for veterans and keep the VA from closing hospitals, a stance which Rossi praised during the debate.