WHITEFISH They agreed on a couple of things no amnesty for illegal immigrants, for instance mangled a few words, accidentally contradicted themselves as well as one another, and even shared some laughs.
But mostly, the first one-on-one debate between Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Jon Tester, featured clear and sharply worded ideological differences that will be repeated and refined through Nov. 7 in one of the most closely watched races in the country. The loss of six Republican seats would give Democrats control of the Senate, and Burns is viewed as one of the most vulnerable incumbents.
In a theme to which they repeatedly returned no matter what the question throughout the Sunday morning debate here sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association, Burns and Tester immediately staked out different positions on Iraq and national security, and on federal spending.
"Win," said Burns, in response to moderator Greg MacDonald's question about what the strategy should be in Iraq.
"There's no substitute for winning, and we are. But it'll be a long, long pull."
Tester, on the other hand, spoke of the need for an exit strategy.
But Burns used a Republican Party catchphrase in saying that "if we cut and run ... we'll end up like Vietnam." U.S. involvement in that country lasted a decade, with 58,000 Americans killed, before ending in 1973; the United States is now Vietnam's largest trading partner.
Burns held up the difference between present-day North and South Korea as an example of the benefits of continued U.S. military involvement.
But Tester said that while he thought the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was necessary after the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq was waged on false pretenses, because no weapons of mass destruction were found there. He said long-term involvement in Iraq is not affordable, "neither monetarily, nor from a people standpoint," he said, referring to MacDonald's question about the 2,500 American deaths there.
"I'm not saying negotiate with terrorists. No way," Tester said. "But the war in Iraq is not fighting the war on terror."
Burns responded that the recent killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, proved the opposite. "We'll keep cutting those heads off," he said.
The two also got into a testy disagreement about the additional monitoring allowed by the USA Patriot Act. Burns pointed to the lack of terrorist attacks in this country since 2001, saying it had kept the country safer.
Tester criticized the Patriot Act, saying "it penalizes our own people first." As to recent revelations about surveillance of telephone calls made within this country, he said, "wiretapping is absolutely not something we should be doing on a regular basis."
"I'm not real sure he cares about the security of this country," Burns said at one point, to which Tester responded: "You talk about me not being strong on security ... because I want people to call their neighbors without their phones being tapped?"
Tester also criticized the Senate for failing to provide checks and balances on the administration of President George W. Bush.
Burns, however, needled Tester during the debate as to how he might have voted on certain Senate bills, whether to continue the administration's tax cuts and on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He chided Tester for failing to answer. Tester said it would be irresponsible for him to comment on bills he hadn't fully read.
He did say, though, that it was wrong to continue the tax cuts in a time of a rising deficit. "You're spending money like a drunken sailor," he said of Burns, who supports the tax cuts.
Burns, in turn, said Tester would have voted against continuing tax cuts; then, in a blooper, he said, "I've already raised taxes." He caught himself as the audience laughed, and added, "You'll find that on a 30-second (campaign advertising) spot."
Tester drew laughter of his own when the two were talking about amnesty and Burns said, "Thanks for taking my position, Jon."
"You know, you're not wrong all the time," Tester replied.
He also tried to help Burns with the enunciation of "judiciary," although he managed to echo President Bush's much-mocked pronunciation of "nuke-you-ler" for nuclear.
Among other areas debated:
Energy: Although Burns spoke of the need for renewable sources of energy, he also would develop Montana's coal reserves and build new oil refineries. "Montana has to put up the flag and say, 'Welcome. Take the coal,'" he said.
Tester, a Big Sandy farmer, would concentrate on renewables. "If I wasn't doing this right now," he said of the Senate race, "I'd be out getting a vegetable press so I could press my own oil to burn in my tractors and trucks."
The deficit: Tester took Burns to task for being part of a Congress that helped pushed the deficit higher.
Burns defended that spending as having brought federal money to Montana and said, "You gotta spend smart, and that's what I'm trying to do."
"That's the new math," Tester responded.
Homeland security: Each spoke of the need to defend the borders and to emphasize the border with Canada as well as that with Mexico. Tester, however, said he wasn't in favor of a fence along the Mexican border, mentioning although not by name Germany's experience with the Berlin Wall. Burns, who favors a wall, said people have been mailing him bricks because of it.
The two are scheduled to debate again in Billings in October