SALT LAKE CITY - The first debate between Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens in the race for Utah's only open seat in Congress quickly turned confrontational Tuesday, with Owens repeatedly challenging Love.
What no doubt will be a hard-fought battle for the 4th District seat now held by Rep. Jim Matheson, the sole Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation, kicked off at the Utah Taxpayers Association's annual conference.
Love, the former Saratoga Springs mayor who nearly defeated Matheson two years ago in a high-profile race that attracted national attention, largely focused her remarks on the issues raised during the debate.
But Owens, a lawyer and the son of late Utah congressman Wayne Owens, took issue with what he described as Love's "extreme views" while portraying himself as more pragmatic and less of an ideologue.
In his opening statement, Owens said Love applauded last year's federal government shutdown during a rally for Sen. Mike Lee, R- Utah, one of the leaders of the fight against the Affordable Care Act that led to the shutdown.
"That's the distinction between me and her. I see the shutdown as a breakdown," Owens told the audience of about 150, calling the shutdown "the worst manifestation" of Congress' "extreme partisanship."
He said Love is driven by the national tea party agenda and questioned who she would be beholden to if elected because of support coming in for her campaign from out of state.
Owens also said Love wanted to create a voucher system for Medicare. She responded by first saying she was "flattered you bring my name up so much" and then declared she was committed to keeping the promises made to seniors.
Other points Owens made about Love included what he said was a call from her to eliminate federal support for education. Love disagreed with that characterization "without attacking people" and called for more local control for schools.
On issues the candidates were asked to address, there was also disagreement.
Love said the federal tax code needs to be simplified enough to fit into a single three-ring binder while reducing federal spending because "this nation should not be built on the backs of taxpayers."
Owens said any tax reform needs to be bipartisan and invoked his father's efforts in Congress on water projects for Utah.
"We need to get back to that approach," he said.
Love said Utahns were better equipped to manage the public lands in the state, but Owens said the effort to get the federal government to relinquish control had no realistic chance of succeeding.
He had a similar response to her call for repealing Obamacare, "to stop forcing Americans who don't want insurance to have insurance." Owens said while he does not believe the law will be repealed, it has serious flaws that should be fixed.
After the debate, Love told reporters when asked about what Owens described as her stand on the federal government shutdown that "it was absolutely absurd that he would put words in my mouth."
Love said had she been in Congress during the shutdown debate, she would have voted "to keep government going while trying to defund Obamacare." She said the position was shared by the rest of Utah's delegation.
Love said the race "is not about who I'm running against. It's about who I'm running for," the people of the 4th District. Asked if she expected the race to be contentious, Love said, "not from me."
Owens said after the debate the facts "absolutely" portray Love as an extremist and he would be fair in contrasting her views with his. Pressed to label his political view, he said, "it's a moderate, reasonable approach I would bring."
Dave Hansen, Love's campaign manager, said Owens' tone was "inappropriate" and that he must be getting advice "to get out there and attack. That's not what the public wants."
Owens' communications consultant, advertising executive Tom Love, said Owens was drawing distinctions between himself and his opponent.
"Mission accomplished. He did exactly what he needed to do, which is introduce himself as a very legitimate candidate, and a credible candidate," Tom Love said. "He didn't go after her. He went after her record. So that's totally fair."
Former state lawmaker and Deseret News columnist Frank Pignanelli, the debate moderator, suggested Democrats such as Owens need to be cautious in how they attempt to distinguish themselves against a better-known Republican opponent.
"What Democrats have to remember is if you're going to win outside of Salt Lake City, you have to attract Republican votes. And you have to attract independent votes," he said.
Pignanelli said the debate went well, even though he had admonished the candidates to talk about their plans if elected rather than each other, and avoid any "cheap shots."
Owens, Pignanelli said, "is trying to say, 'I'm a different type of person.'"
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