KALISPELL — U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg stuck with his central campaign theme at a Sunday debate, mentioning President Barack Obama early and often as he laid blame on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for unpopular administration policies.
Tester scoffed at Rehberg's attack that the Democrat votes with the president 95 percent of the time as "crazy." Tester joked that he doesn't even agree with his wife 95 percent of the time.
Tester and Rehberg are engaged in one of the tightest Senate races in the country. The campaign has become increasingly contentious as both sides flood the state with attack advertisements. Tester and Rehberg square off for a fourth and final debate next Saturday night in Bozeman.
Recent polls show Rehberg, the Republican, with a slim lead — but one that falls inside the margin of error.
Both Tester and Rehberg were less aggressive than at a debate a week ago in Billings.
The debate opened with Tester offering a strong defense for the stimulus spending as necessary at the start of the recession to build infrastructure and put people to the work.
"We are still not where we need to be. But it was the step in the right direction moving forward," said Tester as he pointed to several local projects built with the money. "We couldn't sit back and do nothing."
Rehberg trashed it as unnecessary spending, as he did many of the other Obama administration polices like the federal health care bill.
Tester's primary attack of the evening was to slam Rehberg for seeking to end funding for women's health care clinics. Rehberg said the move came as part of an effort to end duplicative services, and said he believes low-income women can receive family planning services under Medicare.
Tester also blamed Rehberg, who has been in Congress since 2000, for inflating debt with tax cuts, two wars and new prescription drug help for seniors. Rehberg countered that the debt has really ballooned under the current administration.
Rehberg attacked Tester for failing to heed the warning of business groups who were seeking help dealing with environmental rules they deemed unfriendly, and that are now being blamed for the closure of a coal-fired power plant near Billings. Tester argued plant owner PPL Montana could pay for the upgrades without even putting a small dent in profits.
Tester touted his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which he bills as a compromise that seeks to both increase logging and wilderness. And he defended the health care bill from Rehberg's attack, pointing out it offers help for those with pre-existing conditions, the uninsured and others.
"To listen to the congressman you would think the old system was just grand. The old system was not grand," Tester said.
Rehberg sought to make the distinction on the estate tax clear, which Tester thinks should only apply to individuals with more than $5 million in assets.
"Make no mistake, I am the candidate who wants no death tax," Rehberg said. "The death tax should be zeroed out. Plain and simple."
The evening debate also included Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, who was the fly in the ointment by pointing out uncomfortable issues for both major party candidates.
Cox said Tester's logging plan is an inappropriate use of the federal government. And he labeled Rehberg's proposal that grants more border enforcement powers to the Department of Homeland Security "a police state bill."
Cox pointed out that both Tester and Rehberg are blaming each other for a lot of problems.
"I am going to agree with both of them," Cox said.