Democratic Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln repeatedly painted herself as an independent voice and moderate lawmaker on Wednesday during her second debate with her Republican challenger Rep. John Boozman, who sought to link the two-term senator to President Barack Obama and his agenda.
Lincoln, who trails Boozman in most polls and is viewed as one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents this year, emphasized her ability to work with Republicans and Democrats and said she bows to no political agenda.
"I'm the most independent voice in Washington these days, quite frankly," she said. "I'm not an automatic for my party. . Some people say I'm too liberal and others say I'm too conservative. The fact is, I'm in the middle, I'm working hard. I'm not sitting on the sidelines booing the other people. I'm out there working to make a difference."
Boozman, a congressman who represents northwest Arkansas, repeatedly highlighted Lincoln's role as a pivotal vote in the passage of Obama's health-care law.
"Sen. Lincoln is very proud of being the deciding vote of Obamacare. I want to be the deciding vote to repeal it," Boozman said.
Lincoln heads into the midterm election after narrowly surviving a bruising primary battle against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who gained the support of many groups who thought Lincoln was too conservative. Boozman, who's served five terms in the House, coasted to a primary victory.
During the debate — the second and final one between the two before Nov. 2 — Lincoln again attacked Boozman as a lawmaker who wants to privatize Social Security and make major cuts to Medicare. Boozman countered that Lincoln was yet another tax-and-spend Democrat who's run up a trillion-dollar deficit.
The two differed on how to balance the budget, with Boozman suggesting an amendment requiring a balanced budget and legislation allowing line-item vetoes, while Lincoln said a combination of spending cuts and taxes are needed.
The candidates were also asked whether they supported a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans openly gay troops. Lincoln, who was one of just two Democrats to join Republicans in a vote to block a recent repeal attempt, said the policy should be eliminated if that's what the military's top commanders recommend.
"I think it is important to listen to the military . to ensure that the military confirms that there is going to be no detriment to troop strength, to morale, to efficiency and effectiveness of our troops," if the ban is lifted, Lincoln said.
Boozman said the policy should remain in place.
"I think the current policy has worked well," he said. "We haven't had significantly problems with it."
This week, a federal judge in California issued an injunction that stops the military from enforcing the policy. An appeal is likely.
Also participating in Wednesday's debate, which will air on the Arkansas Educational Television Network, were Green Party candidate John Gray and independent candidate Trevor Drown. Gray, an engineer who serves as mayor of Greenland, said economic issues were critical in this election, while Drown, a UPS driver, said he was a conservative Christian who wanted to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Lincoln's campaign is relying on a last-minute push from the state's favorite son Bill Clinton, who made a campaign stop Wednesday night in east Arkansas. Clinton also appears in Lincoln's latest television ad, in which the former president said Boozman is relying on voters to cast ballots out of anger, not on issues.
At a rally in Jonesboro, Clinton accused Boozman of ducking the campaign.
"Sen. Lincoln has battled back from an enormous deficit against a congressman who is so smug he doesn't even feel he needs to campaign," Clinton said.
Boozman campaign spokesman Patrick Creamer dismissed Clinton's remarks, saying Boozman has been at more than 100 campaign events.
"The idea that he's not campaigning, there's just no basis for that," Creamer said.
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