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Berkley, Heller trade barbs in testy first debate

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., debates his challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., at the Reno public television studios, Sept. 27, 2012 as Mitch Fox, center, moderates.

Updated Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 | 10:35 p.m.

Little new came from the first face-off between Republican Dean Heller and his Democratic rival Shelley Berkley in their U.S. Senate contest. Speaking from a Reno public television studio, both candidates recycled lines from their caustic TV ads and campaign trail-worn stump speeches.

It was testy, for sure, with a tone to match the increasingly bitter dialogue that has so far characterized the campaigns. Heller accused Berkley of being a liar and lacking character, and Berkley accused Heller of trying to kill Medicare and repeatedly hammered home her argument that he prioritizes big business over middle-class Nevadans.

In the early moments of the debate, both candidates paid homage to efforts to “reach across the aisle” and buck their party’s marching orders. Berkley touted the Nevada delegation’s bipartisan efforts to block the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump and Heller rattled off pieces of legislation he co-sponsored with high-profile Democratic lawmakers.

But the tenuous comity ended there.

In the second question of the night, Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Ray Hagar asked Heller if he believes Nevada’s jobless are “hobos,” referring to a 2010 speech in which Heller used the label while questioning whether prolonging unemployment benefits would leave Americans forever unable to find work.

The Berkley campaign has used that line from Heller’s speech to accuse him of calling jobless Nevadans “hobos.”

Heller denied it outright.

“This is one of the most difficult parts of an election and that is proving something you did not do or something you did not say,” Heller said. “And in this case, this is something I did not do and I did not say.”

Heller went on to say he believes “it’s the responsibility this federal government has to help those who have come by hard times in this economy.”

But Berkley wouldn’t let it slide.

“Look, the fact of the matter is my opponent actually did call unemployed people hobos and that puts him very much in line with what Mitt Romney said about the 47 percent,” Berkley said.

The tone of the debate withered from there.

In his opening line, Heller hinted at the contrast he would draw with Berkley, who is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee on allegations she backed policies that would financially benefit her husband.

“My dad believed that if you played by the rules, you’d be rewarded,” Heller said. “And if you didn’t play by the rules, there would be consequences.”

When the issue of Berkley’s ethics investigation was raised by Hagar, Berkley repeated her defense that she was working to protect the health of Nevadans, not her family’s financial interests. Berkley lobbied her colleagues to protect Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney care. Her husband is a nephrologist in Las Vegas.

“You know my opponent has attacked me on this and I can take these attacks,” Berkley said. “What I can’t take are the attacks on the people of the state of Nevada.”

She then pivoted again to accusing Heller of supporting tax breaks for big oil companies.

But Heller didn’t let the opportunity go by to attack Berkley once more on ethics.

“Character matters,” he said. “It matters in life and it matters in the U.S .Senate. My opponent has a big problem. Do you know how unusual it is for the Ethics Committee to move forward on an investigation like this? It’s big. It’s huge. And she can’t get away from it.”

Berkley took the offensive when the question of immigration and the Dream Act was broached. Heller deflected the question of why he voted against the measure that would give citizenship to students and military service members brought to the United States illegally as young children.

Instead, he said Democrats in charge of the Senate have refused to negotiate with the minority party, arguing that the two sides “agree on 80 percent of the topics.”

But Berkley portrayed Heller as an aggressively anti-immigration candidate, pointing out his expressed support for Arizona’s far reaching immigration law — most of which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The one thing I can’t believe he is opposed to is the Dream Act,” Berkley said. “He voted against it. Not 80 percent, not 20 percent, he voted against 100 percent of it.”

As the debate progressed, Heller became more visibly irritated at the way Berkley portrayed his record, bristling when she accused him of opposing benefits for homeless veterans.

“I’m convinced that my opponent’s motto is ‘It’s not a lie if I can convince Nevadans to believe it,’” he said.

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