The legacy of President Bush loomed large Tuesday over the first televised debate between Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Democratic rival Jim Himes, with the challenger characterizing the incumbent as an abettor of the GOP administration's failed economic and foreign policies.
Himes told members of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce that Shays erred when he voted in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and charged his opponent with supporting the pro-deregulation economic policies of the Bush-Cheney administration "lock, stock and barrel."
"Where I come from, being that wrong has consequences," said Himes, a former chairman of the Democratic Town Committee of Greenwich.
Shays, the lone Republican House member from New England to survive the 2006 mid-term elections, countered that his opponent was distorting his bipartisan record, in which he said he has opposed Bush on a host of issues such as the torture of prisoners, the president's opposition to universal health care and his reluctance to implement the recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Yet, my opponent would have you think I am his clone," Shays said.
Shays and Himes sparred for an hour during the luncheon debate at the Norwalk Inn & Conference Center, which was also sponsored by Stamford-based Patriot National Bank and taped for airing Tuesday night on Cablevision News 12. The debate, moderated by Tom Appelby of News 12, is scheduled to air five times this week.
Right out of the gate, 21-year incumbent Shays accused Himes of sitting idly by as outside political operatives from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blanketed the district with fliers twisting the Republicans' record.
Shays held up a committee flier, showing a photo of a bloody-faced U.S. soldier, claiming that he opposed a $1,500 bonus for the troops while voting for congressional pay raises on numerous occasions.
"For me, I would sooner lose an election than go down the negative path that my opponent has taken," said Shays, who called the fliers "junk."
The same flier came up in an earlier debate hosted by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, the first of seven debates scheduled between the two candidates.
In an interview later in the day, Shays said his vote was taken out of context and that it was part of a larger budget resolution in 2006 that included a provision that would have allowed for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he opposes.
Himes said in an interview that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, not his campaign, was responsible for the flier.
"As you know, they do what they do," Himes said.
One of the best exchanges of the t te- -t te came when Shays said he opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan to rebuff the Taliban insurgency until more Afghan soldiers are trained, having learned his lessons from Iraq.
Himes had a quick retort.
"If that's his experience in Iraq, then I'll take a pass on Afghanistan," Himes said.
A former Goldman Sachs investment banker turned nonprofit housing executive, Himes said Shays is out of touch with his constituents and insensitive to the economic hardships faced by the middle class.
"Our economy is stuck on its back," Himes said, blasting Shays for comments he made saying that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong."
Alluding to Himes' background at Goldman Sachs, Shays said that there was a "bit of arrogance" to his comments. The nation's economic crisis, Shays said, is rooted in the financial services industry.
"I'll be darned if I'm going to let Wall Street bring down Main Street," Shays said.
Another major area of dissension between the two candidates was immigration, with Himes saying he favors requiring illegal aliens to pay a fine and get in the back of the line for citizenship and Shays outright opposing a path to citizenship for those who break the law.