The Sunday afternoon 90-minute debate was delayed as organizers attempted to accommodate a packed Hamilton High School with nearly 700 boisterous spectators, most of them Tester supporters who reportedly outnumbered Burns’ by two to one. Many of them wore bright yellow “Fire Burns” T-shirts and heckled and booed many of Burns’ responses despite attempts by the moderator to maintain decorum.
More than 200 people were turned away from the event as local police worked to keep fire escape routes open, according to the New West, an online news magazine in the Rocky Mountains.
This was the second debate between the two outspoken candidates, both attempting to paint themselves as the right candidate for Montana, including wearing cowboy hats.
As expected, when the issue of politics and corruption came up, the debate got heated, according to the Missoulian.
“I’ll tell you right now, we’ve got the best government money can buy,” Tester said, alluding to Burns’ connection to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is embroiled in a Justice Department corruption investigation. Before returning about $150,000, Burns reportedly received more money from Abramoff and associates than any other member of Congress.
“The fact is, you have to have people back there who have Montana values. You have to have people back there who are willing to tell people like convicted felon Jack Abramoff and his buddies, ‘no’,” Tester added.
Burns responded by attacking Tester about a foreign trip he took to Taiwan and failed to report, as well as alleged phone calls Tester made to raise campaign funds, a violation of state law.
“When you look at everything there, maybe I’m the only one here that’s not a lawbreaker. I might be the only one,” Burns said.
The two also disagreed on the war in Iraq. Burns accused Tester of changing his position on the issue several times and that strong Republican leadership was needed to protect the United States in a world of terrorists, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s freedom, folks,” Burns said. “It’s freedom first. If you don’t have that, you don’t have nothing.”
Tester argued that a plan should be created to bring American troops home and that there is no connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We need to fight the war on terrorism for real,” Tester said.
When the debate shifted to the issue of federal spending, the men diverged again. Burns argued that though the debt has grown after Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, the economy has grown as well and the debt is smaller than last year.
Tester responded with, “Saying that the debt’s only half as big as it was last year is like saying, ‘I’m maintaining my weight gain.'”
Burns made a point of Tester’s acceptance of federal subsidies for his Big Sandy organic farm after Tester said he’d balanced the check book at both his farm and the state legislature where he is president of the Senate.
“Your farm didn’t get hit by Katrina. Your farm didn’t get hit by terrorists. Your farm got hit by a little disaster and I offered the checks and you cashed them up on that ol’ farm,” Burns said.
With the rhetoric expected to continue, recent polls show Burns and Tester in a statistical tie, according to the AP.