RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - House Majority Leader Eric Cantor pressed familiar campaign themes and accused Democratic challenger Wayne Powell of running a negative campaign as the two squared off in a lively debate Monday night.
Powell, a lawyer and retired Army colonel making his first run for public office in Virginia's strongly Republican 7th District, portrayed himself as a Washington outsider and said that as a congressional leader Cantor bears some responsibility for the nation's economic problems.
The one-hour debate before a Virginia Chamber of Commerce audience marked only the second time since Cantor's election in 2000 that he has debated a general election opponent _ a fact the challenger made light of in his opening statement.
"My name is Wayne Powell and I'm really surprised to be here," he said.
Powell animatedly chided Cantor for the failure of Congress to get the country on the right economic path. In a question about the looming "fiscal cliff" _ the combination of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts scheduled for January that could send the nation back into a recession _ Powell blamed Cantor for abandoning deficit-reduction talks last year.
"It's about a Congress led by this man to my left that decided they'd rather kick the can down the road," Powell said. He said Cantor is "a person who is dysfunctional, who won't sit down with the other party."
Cantor said the problem is that President Barack Obama would not agree to spending cuts. He stressed that he continues to support lower taxes and reduced federal regulation as the formula for creating jobs and getting the economy back on track.
"A tax increase is the last thing the economy needs now," Cantor said.
Powell said spending cuts need to be done "with a scalpel" and suggested the "bloated" defense budget is a good place to start, especially the outsourcing of work to private contractors. He said he would support an audit of the Defense Department.
Cantor said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told him that potential defense cuts in the federal budget sequestration project would force the U.S. to rethink its role as a world power.
"So it's a very scary thing, this sequester, and it ought not go through," Cantor said.
One of the sharpest exchanges came when the candidates were allowed to ask each other a question, and Powell asked Cantor why he voted to continue to pay members of Congress but not members of the military if a budget stalemate forced a government shutdown.
"You can go on your personal attacks all you want, but it's not going to do anything to create jobs," Cantor said, adding that he has supported a number of efforts to help veterans.
Powell countered that Cantor didn't support a suicide-prevention program for veterans.
"You'll just kick it down the line and pretend you support veterans, and you don't," he said.
Cantor's question for Powell was about the Democrat's statement on his website that he supports public funding for political campaigns. Cantor called the idea a "welfare program for politicians."
Powell said it's better than "the corporate welfare you're receiving to run your campaign," suggesting big donations make Cantor beholden to special interests.
The two also clashed over energy policy. Cantor called for less Environmental Protection Agency regulation and touted the importance of fossil fuels in creating jobs, while Powell argued that the country needs to move toward renewable resources like solar and wind power.
In his closing statement, Cantor said the debate was "peppered with what is wrong with politics today, just a rash of personal attacks" by the challenger.
Powell countered that the audience "heard a lot of Washington-speak tonight because he's had 12 years to practice it."
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