Monday, Sept. 28, 1998 | 10:49 a.m.
That fireball spotted over Sun City on Sunday was actually Sen. Harry Reid calling Rep. John Ensign a liar and Ensign claiming that he comes from a more respectable profession than that of his election opponent.
Any doubts about the bitterness of the Nevada contest between Democrat Reid and Republican Ensign for Reid's Senate seat were wiped out from the opening bell as the candidates debated one another for the first time heading into the Nov. 3 general election.
The audience, about 500 senior citizens at the Desert Vista Community Center, was clearly partisan and vocal. But there were far more boos than applause, and the loudest boos came whenever Reid attacked Ensign. It was hard to tell, however, whether the boos were because people approved of the attacks or because they thought the salvos were below the belt.
What emerged were clear differences between Reid and Ensign, principally on domestic issues and generally along party lines. Reid touted his support for public education and legal protection for consumers of health maintenance organizations, both bread-and-butter issues for Democrats. Ensign hammered on the Internal Revenue Service and vowed to fight for less federal government intrusion, both high on the GOP agenda.
Reid's opening statement was mostly an attack on Ensign, claiming this election was about "what I have done for the state of Nevada and John has not done.
"I believe that government can be made better and that there are programs that are good," Reid said. "He denigrates government. He voted against the Clean Water Act. He voted to slash Medicare of $270 billion. He even wanted to cut lunch programs for schools.
"In his campaign literature he has the audacity to say he authored the source tax (repeal). He wasn't even in Congress for the source tax."
Ensign, who mentioned that his grandmother is a Sun City resident, chose initially not to attack Reid directly. In describing why he first ran for Congress in 1994, however, Ensign chose a more indirect jab.
"Politicians cared more about getting re-elected than doing what is right," Ensign said. "I said, 'I can't sit on the sidelines any longer.' I ran on balancing the budget, reforming welfare and keeping criminals in prison longer.
"Welfare rolls in Nevada have been cut about in half. We've cut taxes for seniors who wanted to work and seniors who wanted to save and invest."
Clear differences emerged during a series of questions from the audience. Ensign repeated his call for President Clinton's resignation in light of his admitted affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Reid called the affair immoral but said he would "keep an open mind" and let the process proceed before deciding whether to impeach Clinton.
Reid defended his support in 1993 of a Clinton deficit-reduction budget package that he credited with sparking the nation's robust economy. The senator said that package, supported exclusively by Democrats, stood in sharp contrast to the mounting deficits under the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
"It has created 16 million new jobs and the lowest unemployment in 40 years," Reid said. "We have 340,000 fewer federal employees. It's what has turned the economy around."
Ensign, however, blasted the budget plan by noting that it raised taxes on all Social Security recipients who earned more than $34,000 annually.
"Since we (Republicans) took over Congress we have slowed the rate of growth of spending faster than the Democrats had, so the economy picked back up," he said. "I want to work for lower taxes and less spending, and the senator wants to raise taxes and spending."
Reid snapped: "The fact is you don't understand the facts."
Both candidates favor HMO reform but Reid wants to give consumers more freedom to sue their health-care providers for malpractice. Ensign wants to cut down on potential litigation because he said it would slow down the delivery of needed care.
Reid played up his experience in the Senate, noting he is one of the highest rated members of that body and one who has successfully sponsored hundreds of bills in his 12 years in office. Ensign, however, said it is better to be with the majority party and noted that the Republicans stand a good chance of increasing their 55-45 advantage after November's elections.
At one point, Reid chided Ensign after the congressman touted his background as a veterinarian in explaining his knowledge of health-care issues.
"We're not talking about taking care of dogs," Reid said. "We're talking about human beings."
Ensign was not about to let Reid, a lawyer, have a free ride.
"I think the average person has more respect for their veterinarian than the average lawyer," Ensign said.
Mitch Fox of KLVX-TV Channel 10, who served as the debate moderator, announced that the next debate between Reid and Ensign will occur next Sunday on his station at 9 p.m. That debate also will be carried live nationally on C-SPAN.