The informal debate at Temple Beth El in Portland is the first of 10 scheduled before the Nov. 4 election.
By BETH QUIMBY, Staff Writer
The nation's unfolding financial crisis, rising energy prices, international trade agreements and other economic issues dominated the first debate Sunday morning in this year's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Maine.
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Tom Allen took only mild political jabs at each other at Temple Beth El in Portland, the opening round of 10 debates scheduled across the state before the Nov. 4 election.
Two-term incumbent Collins touted her experience and seniority in the Senate and her efforts to forge bipartisan solutions to the country's problems by co-sponsoring legislation with Democrats. Six-term Rep. Allen took aim at the Bush administration by saying it has failed middle-class Americans and put the nation deep into debt.
The audience of about 200 at Temple Beth El was equally sedate, observing a request to hold its applause until the end of the hour-long forum. The debate was informal - candidates' responses were not timed, and the questions were collected from the audience.
Allen said he supports government efforts to stem the financial crisis, such as the takeover of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae earlier this month. But he blamed the Bush administration's economic philosophy for causing the crisis.
Allen said he has never detected such high levels of anxiety about the economy as exist today among Mainers. "This is not about Wall Street but Main Street," he said.
Collins called for extensive congressional oversight hearings to determine what went wrong and what needs to be done. She said there should be more pressure on corporate boards to curb excessive executive compensation that rewards risk-taking over long-term results, and called for more market discipline.
Collins stopped short of endorsing more regulation of the country's financial institutions.
"It's not a matter of too little or too much regulation but the right regulation," she said.
Both candidates gave lukewarm reviews to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Collins said trade agreements have created some jobs in Maine, such as an agreement with Chile for Maine potatoes at Burger King restaurants. But some trade agreements have resulted in tariffs that have hurt other Maine agricultural and forest sectors, she said.
Allen said he is co-sponsoring legislation that would review existing trade agreements that have done a lot of damage to the U.S. economy.
In response to a question about how to curb efforts by Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, Allen criticized the Bush administration for losing the support of American allies in the war in Iraq.
"We have to have very strong economic sanctions against Iran, but we have squandered the support of our allies," he said.
Collins said she is one of 50 co-sponsors of a resolution that calls on the United States to take the lead in exerting economic pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear weapon development. "This is not something the U.S. can do alone," she said.
Both candidates said they support expanding programs to help Mainers afford high oil prices this winter.
Collins said she would double funding for low-income heating and home weatherization programs, rein in big oil company tax subsidies, expand domestic oil production and pursue the development of alternative energy sources.
Allen said he supports a $2,000 tax credit per family for home heating this winter, a 1 percent interest loan for home weatherization projects, ending subsidies for oil companies and expanding energy source alternatives.
Some of those attending the debate said it hadn't changed their minds about whom they would support in November.
"They are both extraordinarily eloquent and did a very nice job as far as likability," said Jeff Barkin of Portland.
Ken Levinsky of Portland said the debates may grow more lively as the election draws closer.
"I am looking forward to more," Levinsky said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: