PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The six candidates hoping to fill retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe's seat sparred over health care, taxes and the economy on Friday evening during a storm-delayed debate that focused at times as much on attack ads, super PACs and the tone of the campaign as much as it did on the issues.
One of the debate's most tense exchanges came between Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers and independent Steve Woods during a discussion of super political action committees that have spent more than $5 million on attack ads, much of it targeting independent former Gov. Angus King, the front-runner.
While others decried outside spending, Summers said candidates should focus on issues instead of wringing hands or crying about "who's saying what about whom on the playground."
After being challenged by Woods, who said "billionaires" were controlling the election, Summers responded, "He's whining again. I'm getting tired of it."
The debate, at WMTW's studios in Auburn, was supposed to have been held three days earlier at the University of Southern Maine in Portland but was postponed because of Superstorm Sandy.
It was the second-to-last debate before Election Day featuring all six candidates, including Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill and two other independents, Danny Dalton and Andrew Ian Dodge. The candidates gather for the final debate Saturday evening at Lewiston Middle School.
Woods, a Yarmouth businessman, offered to pay $10,000 to charity if Summers and Dill would focus on the issues instead of attacking King, the oldest among the candidates, at 68, and the founder of an energy conservation company. He said Dill's previous statements targeting King's age and wealth were undignified and said Summers had made "gross distortions" of King's record.
After the debate ended, Woods said he had to tear up the pair of $5,000 personal checks because Dill and Summers couldn't resist attacking King during the debate.
"It wasn't a stunt. It wasn't meant to put them in an awkward position," said Woods, who's trailing in the polls. "It was meant to make the point if we can't spend one hour just talking about the issues and what Mainers care about, then that's symbolic of the problem I'm trying to highlight."
The debate touched upon many of the issues addressed in previous debates: President Barack Obama's health care reform, taxes, the economy, Social Security and Medicare.
King touted himself as the antidote to the partisanship that drove Snowe, a Republican, to leave the bitterly divided Senate, which has failed to address many of those issues.
"She left because the place didn't function," he said. "She couldn't get anything done. She was utterly frustated. I think we need to do something different."
He said later he doesn't have any "magic formula" in Washington but "I think we've got to try."
Summers said he wants to reduce the size of government and to reduce the national debt by growing the economy.
"I want to go to Washington to lead the fight to cut spending, reduce regulations and keep taxes low so businesses can expand, so people can have jobs," he said.
Dill, a civil rights lawyer, described herself as a working mother who understands the middle class and would bring a breath of fresh air to a Senate that she says is dominated by wealthy white men.
"What's wrong with Congress is extreme wealth and extreme politics," she said.
Dalton, who's spent 25 years working for various federal agencies, said he wants to eliminate government waste and reform the tax code. Dodge, a tea party activist and libertarian, said rights were being trampled and he was ready to go to Washington to "smack a few heads together to get things done."