By KEN DIXON
Toward the end of their fifth debate in six days, U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays and challenger Jim Himes shared a smile and touched their fists together Sunday afternoon on the stage at Wilton High School's Clune Center for the Performing Arts.
During that rare light moment, they agreed that public financing needs to be adopted for congressional campaigns to prevent the proliferation of lobbyists, political action committees and special interests who this year are making Connecticut's tight 4th District race one of the most-expensive in the country.
But most of the 90-minute League of Women Voters debate before about 350 people centered on the Republican incumbent's record and the Democratic former Wall Street banker's attempts to tie the failures of the Bush administration -- especially the war in Iraq and the sputtering economy -- to Shays' support.
Shays said that during his 21 years in Congress he has brought home substantial federal dollars, lowered tax rates to stimulate the economy, expanded free trade and worked to clean up auto emissions and require tougher mileage requirements.
"My opponent will say he doesn't attack Republicans or Democrats, but he attacks Republicans," Shays said. "He attacks the president and the entire Congress. My view is we're all in this together and we all have to take responsibility."
Himes went after Shays' use of a prop, the 88-page booklet he's given away to audiences at each debate, to act as footnotes on his record. "I'll tell you it is a book that would make the Soviet Ministry of Propaganda blush," Himes quipped.
Shays said that many of Himes' charges are on issues that occurred with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
"I think I'd forgotten during our last two debates who's been in control of Congress for the last two years," Shays said of the Democratic majority. The appearance was the second debate of the day. The first was held in the morning at Temple Israel in Westport.
The candidates argued over the origins of the recent economic meltdown.
Shays blamed the housing bubble, particularly the mismanagement of government-backed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage companies. "We didn't put in a strong regulator until last year," Shays said.
Himes called Shays' Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae cause "a smokescreen" and only a tiny piece of the financial-services market. He recalled a 2007 vote Shays missed on restructuring the oversight for Fannie Mae.
Himes said that while the subprime-mortgage loans represent a $1 trillion market, the investment banks were under-regulated.
"The credit-default-swap market -- nobody knows anything about this -- but it's $60 trillion in size and the Commodities Future Modernization Act, which Chris Shays voted for, explicitly prohibited government regulation of this massive market, which Warren Buffett called a financial weapon of mass destruction."
Shays said that European banks were overtaking American banks, so Citibank was allowed to bypass restrictions and Himes has said he would have supported the tactic. "What we did is we just made sure that American banks could compete with European banks."
"I would have fought for it to include the regulatory oversight structures that would have been modern and that would have prevented where we are today," Himes replied.
Himes said the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, as the nation was heading into war, resulted in a doubling of the national debt to $10 trillion.
"The reality, ladies and gentlemen, is our nation is in crisis and I know that we can do better," said Himes, who pointed out his two grade-school daughters in the fourth row. "I really worry about the kind of America they're going to live in."
Himes said the "disastrously bad policies and decisions made by the Bush administration and supported by Chris Shays" have put the national economy in jeopardy.
He said the way to get the country on the rebound is to invest in infrastructure programs including rebuilding roads, highways and bridges, while giving tax cuts to middle-income families.
Those tax breaks would come through education spending, housing and savings. He stressed the need for added laws to take control of the financial and credit markets that nearly melted down the economy.
"We're going to put in place the kind of oversight structure, the regulations that make sure we never, ever find ourselves putting $700 billion on the table again to rescue a private industry," Himes said. "Chris Shays was a critical part of the oversight mechanism that failed and as a result we're putting $700 million of our money on the table to rescue the banks."