MONTCLAIR, N.J. (AP) — The state's two major-party candidates for the U.S. Senate tussled Thursday over whose policies would be better for the middle class in the first of three scheduled debates before their Nov. 6 election.
The incumbent, Democrat Robert Menendez, told of his rise from tenements to the U.S. Senate and said he's spent his political career fighting for the middle class. His Republican challenger, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, said it's not working.
"I'm waiting to see some really good evidence of the middle class doing well under your watch, Bob," Kyrillos said, citing higher unemployment and a larger national deficit than when Menendez joined the Senate six years ago, before the start of the Great Recession.
Menendez argued that taxes for high-wage earners should be allowed to rise to help balance the budget and fund important government programs. Kyrillos said that any tax increases will lead to job cuts. Echoing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, he said tax rates should be reduced and deductions and credits eliminated and that will improve the economy.
Menendez was animated and Kyrillos was more deliberate in his first statewide debate as the two try to get traction in a race that's not getting a lot of attention.
As with all politics in New Jersey these days, the subtext surrounds Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He's done six fundraising events for Kyrillos, whom he's called perhaps his best friend in Trenton, and said this week that he'll appear at four campaign events with him between now and the election.
Despite the help from a popular if divisive governor, Kyrillos lags in polls. And New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 40 years.
Menendez, meanwhile, has a chilly relationship with Christie. He was asked during the debate at Montclair State University if that's a problem.
Menendez, who joined the Senate in 2006 to fill an unexpired term and was elected to a full term later that year, said he's worked with Christie on some important issues.
"I have a professional, cordial relationship with the governor," he said, and he pointed to federal funding he's helped bring to New Jersey partly at Christie's behest.
Kyrillos retorted, "Those aren't special."
"That's part of the in-basket," he said. "What we're talking about here is the ability to communicate with the governor, whoever he is."
In the rapid-fire debate, the candidates were held, with rare and brief exceptions, to two-minute answers.
Candidates covered abortion: Both say they support abortion rights, though Menendez charged that Kyrillos has changed his stance over the years.
They addressed Iran policy, with Menendez saying the economic sanctions he sponsored are working and Kyrillos saying it doesn't look as though the sanctions are working and President Barack Obama is not showing enough leadership in the Middle East.
And they tackled Amtrak. Menendez said it must be preserved but didn't go into detail about in what form. Kyrillos said he's open to privatization if it means good service and reasonable rates.
The only laugh lines of the debate came on the national rail system.
"I love taking the Amtrak down to Washington, D.C.," Kyrillos said. "I hope to do it a lot more starting in January."
Menendez responded that he supports that.
"I hope you're going to come visit me a lot on Amtrak," he said. "You can visit our office. We'll give you a Capitol tour."
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