Democrat Richard Carmona said Wednesday he would not have supported the federal Affordable Care Act as pushed through by President Obama.
In the first debate of the three candidates for U.S. Senate, Carmona made several attempts to put some distance between him and the positions of the Obama administration. Carmona also said he would extend the Bush-era tax cuts across the board -- again, contrary to the president's wishes -- and specifically said he is not defending the record of the Democrat-controlled Senate.
At the same time, Republican contender Jeff Flake sought to convince viewers that a vote for Carmona is a vote for a president whose popularity in Arizona is limited where Republicans outnumber Democrats, calling him "an echo of the Obama administration.''
With the race between the pair considered close, the posturing continued even after the debate at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, when Flake pointed out that Carmona had to leave to attend a rally at Arizona State University featuring former President Bill Clinton. Flake said that shows Carmona is just another Democrat.
Carmona said he was "happy'' with the support but rejected the idea that the former president motivates only Democrats.
"Republicans are standing up and saying what a great guy he is with his Clinton initiative'' which brings together global and business leaders to find solutions to the world's problems. "We have a world leader that's coming, recognizes my leadership ability and wants me to be a senator.''
Flake acknowledged that Carmona, who has never been elected, has no voting record. But he vowed to continue to paint Carmona as an Obama political clone "until he takes a position that is at variance with the Obama administration.''
All that bemused Libertarian Marc Victor.
"The two parties are the ones that got us into situation to begin with,'' he said, saying the only real change will come when neither party is in power.
Much of the hour-long debate was punctuated by the two major party candidates each accusing the other of changing positions.
Carmona charged that Flake has waffled on questions of immigration reform, taking a hard-line stance during the GOP primary and now seeking to curry favor with Hispanics. Flake, in turn, said Carmona has been all over the board on the issue of the Affordable Care Act, at one time professing unqualified support.
On Wednesday, Carmona said he supports the concept. But he said if he were in Congress when the measure came to the floor, he would not have voted for it in that form.
"I believe it's unsustainable in the long run,'' he said.
"When we look at adding 32 million into the system, the way the business plan is set up to take money from the doctors, money from the hospitals, they're already being threatened,'' Carmona continued, saying that's why some won't take more Medicare patients because of the lack of proper reimbursement. "What I'm fully behind is the aspiration to ensure that every American has access to a basic set of health care benefits.''
Flake did not spell out his alternative. But Republicans in Congress have generally pushed for programs that keep the federal government out of the equation, instead focusing on things like tax credits for health insurance.
The bigger distinction between the pair is over the question of "earmarks,'' special spending provisions inserted into federal budget bills for favored projects.
Flake takes credit for the fact that, technically speaking, there are no more earmarks because of changes he pushed as a member of the House of Representatives. But Carmona said -- and he did not dispute -- that lawmakers still have ways of getting pet projects funded.
More to the point, Carmona said he supports earmarks, in whatever form, to get needed projects for the state.
"Not all earmarks are pork,'' he said. And Carmona argued that federal funding for some projects will help bring jobs to the state.
"We have to be able to look at infrastructure needs,'' he said, needs that Flake will not try to put into federal spending bills.
Flake said Carmona's position points up the sharpest difference between them.
"He's only been a Democrat for a year now but he has adopted the Democratic playbook through and through that the source of jobs in this country is the federal government and not businesses or entrepreneurs,'' Flake said. "What we really need is surety on taxes and then to get a moratorium on these burdensome regulations that are strangling business in the state.''
But Victor said the whole high-profile debate over earmarks is silly, saying they amount to about one-half of one percent of the federal budget.
"Of course we're better off without earmarks,'' he said. "But talking about that is like talking about a drop of water in the ocean.''
On the issue of immigration, Flake said he remains a strong supporter of the kind of "broad based immigration reform'' he pushed as a member of the House. That includes finding ways to let the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants already here remain, and even some variant of the DREAM Act to provide a path to citizenship for those brought to the country illegally as children.
But he said the political reality in Washington is that there will not be the will to approve such measures until the border is secure.
Asked what constitutes a "secure'' border, Flake said there's a good example: the Yuma sector, where illegal crossing has been slowed to a trickle and federal agents have a "reasonable expectation'' of apprehending those who enter illegally. "We don't have anything approaching that in the Tucson sector,'' Flake said.
Carmona said it's wrong to compare the two sectors and withhold support for immigration reform until there is virtually no illegal crossing in the Tucson sector. "We need comprehensive immigration reform now,'' he said.