PHOENIX (AP) — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona got a boost from former President Bill Clinton, just hours after Carmona faced opponent Republican Rep. Jeff Flake in their first debate.
The pair of Democrats addressed a crowd of several thousand at a Wednesday night rally at Arizona State University to kick off early voting, which begins Thursday. Kevin Johnson, a former Phoenix Suns star and current mayor of Sacramento, Calif., also made an appearance on stage to introduce Carmona.
Clinton rehashed points he made at the Democratic National Convention, where he gave a similar speech to give a boost to President Barack Obama and defend his economic policies.
Flake, a six-term congressman, and Carmona, who served as surgeon general under former President George W. Bush, are running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Libertarian Marc Victor, a criminal defense lawyer who served in the U.S. Marines, is also running.
During the debate, Flake tried to link Carmona to Obama's policies. He said Carmona was an "echo" of the Obama administration in that he believes that job creation is the job of the government rather than private enterprise.
"He has adopted the Democratic playbook," Flake said during the one-hour debate produced by KAET-TV in Phoenix.
Carmona said he has been an independent his whole life.
Democrats recruited Carmona, who until late last year was a registered independent, to run for Kyl's seat after it became clear that then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wouldn't campaign because of head injuries she suffered during the January 2011 shooting rampage in Tucson. One of the recruiting pitches came from the president.
Yet at the debate, he said: "I am not here to defend the Obama administration."
At the Carmona rally later, Flake was rarely mentioned by name. Instead, the Democrats tied him to Republican measures such as a GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Clinton also defended the federal health care overhaul, which Flake voted against.
Both Clinton and Carmona drew parallels between Carmona's biography as a veteran and a surgeon, and government programs that they said built a strong middle class, such as the G.I. bill.
Clinton said voters who believe in the "legacy of the G.I. bill that built (Carmona)" should vote for a Democrat to support those types of programs.
"Every life we let go makes the rest of us poorer. And the more we expand opportunity for everybody, the more we build a great middle-class century for the 21st century," Clinton said.
Clinton also tried to appeal to the younger crowd, citing changes to student loans passed by the Obama administration and expressing support for a DREAM Act.
"There are a lot of Richard Carmonas out there today. And they all deserve a chance at their dreams," Clinton said.
During the debate, Carmona charged that Flake's fierce opposition to special funding requests known as earmarks has hurt economic development in Arizona. He said business leaders and a mayor in metro Phoenix have complained that Flake's ideological opposition to earmarks for roads, public-works and water projects has hurt efforts to attract new businesses to the state.
Flake has portrayed Carmona as a hand-picked rubber stamp for Obama.
The Libertarian candidate, Victor, focused on government spending and said both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for increasing the size of government. "They have caused the problem," Victor said.
Flake touted his opposition to earmarks as a move away from patronage and a move toward basing funding for projects on merit. "Arizona is far better without earmarks," Flake said.
Carmona said some earmarks aren't government pork spending, but rather an investment in communities.
Flake and Carmona agreed that Medicare needs to be overhauled, but they differed on how to go about it.
Flake supported a GOP budget authored by Ryan that would change how future Medicare beneficiaries now under age 55 would get health care coverage. Ryan's plan would provide future seniors with subsidies to help buy a private health plan or buy coverage through a government-run program modeled after the current system.
Carmona said he opposes Ryan's plan because it transfers financial risks from the government to seniors and that seniors with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure will have difficulty getting coverage. Carmona proposed reducing health care costs for the elderly by focusing more on preventing diseases and by getting rid of more waste and fraud.
One clear difference between the candidates is on immigration.
Carmona said he admires Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for their attempts at legislation to toughen border security and give illegal immigrants already in the United States a pathway to citizenship.
Flake in the past also has supported comprehensive immigration reform but adopted a narrower position on immigration when he announced his Senate candidacy last year.
Carmona said his GOP opponent changed his position to appeal to voters, while Flake said he eventually concluded that no one will trust the federal government to fix America's immigration woes until border security improves.
Other debates among the Senate candidates are scheduled for Oct. 15 in Tucson and Oct. 25 in Yuma.