In the debate, moderated by National Public Radio correspondent and North Carolina native Carl Kasell, the two men sparred over issues including education, health care, same-sex marriage and North Carolina’s most pressing concern– jobs.
On education, both men mentioned the president’s No Child Left Behind education reform act passed in 2001. Burr, a five-term Congressman, said in proposing the bill Republicans had “put their money where their mouth is,” while Bowles criticized the administration for proposing the bill then failing to provide the money to make it work.
Bowles, who served as chief of staff to President Clinton, added he would support increased funding for early childhood education programs, and after-school programs that he said could help prevent teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. Both candidates said they support the funding of higher education Pell Grants.
When asked about the plight of the 1.4 million North Carolinians without health care, Bowles pointed to his “detailed health care plan,” but failed to elaborate. He then criticized Burr of flip flopping in his support of the Medicare bill and failing to vote for policies such as the reimportation of drugs that, he said, could help make health care more affordable.
“Sometimes, Richard, you amaze me. You actually voted for those provisions before you voted against them,” he said, echoing the often-repeated statement by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry about his Iraq war votes.
Burr countered that he supported President Bush’s proposed expansion of community health centers and the passage of medical liability reform, and in turn criticized Bowles for cutting funding to nursing homes and hospitals by $800 billion as part of his effort to balance the federal budget in 1997 during the Clinton administration.
Both men said they oppose gay marriage but only Burr said he would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. Bowles said he would support such an amendment only as a last resort.
On the issue of jobs — a critical issue in a state where some 80,000 people have lost jobs in the manufacturing, textile and furniture industries over the last four years– Burr suggested increasing support of the state’s community colleges for retraining and making tax cuts permanent in order to benefit the middle class and spur economic growth. Bowles said the focus should be on trade and stopping the loss of jobs to overseas markets.
Though the debate remained largely civil, it did heat up as each man sought to paint the other as changing opinions on the issues of trade and the assault weapons ban.
Bowles said he would not vote for any trade pacts until reform of existing trade agreements had been completed. He then accused Burr of supporting trade agreements that hurt North Carolina workers.
He said Burr continues to vote for free trade agreements that make him popular with free trade organizations.
“Richard, I really would like for you to talk about your trade policies, because you voted one way in Washington and you’ve said something different here. You’ve talked about and lambasted NAFTA, yet you’ve said here you were for NAFTA… worst of all to me you told the furniture and textile workers of this state that you wanted to be able to amend trade agreements and then you turned around and you made the deciding vote that made it impossible to do that,” the Democrat said.
Burr responded that Bowles also had a history on the trade issue, supporting trade with China that allowed the importation of cheap goods that he said helped bring about the downfall of North Carolina’s textile industry.
“If you want to have a history lesson, I’ll give you one tonight,” Burr told Bowles.
Asked about the government’s failure to extend the assault weapons ban, Bowles said he supported the Second Amendment but sided with the countries police chiefs, “every single” one of whom, he said, supported the ban.
Burr shot back, accusing Bowles of stretching the truth.
“Once again Erskine hasn’t exactly said something that was accurate. All police chiefs in the country support this legislation? I’ll send you a list of the police chiefs that don’t,” Burr said.
Public opinion polls continue to indicate that Bowles maintains a narrow lead in the race, but experts expect the contest for retiring Sen. John Edwards’ seat to tighten in the coming weeks.