It took three weeks for the candidates in the only congressional race in the country to get together for a debate. When they finally did for the first and only time, there was one answer they shared: All three said they would not be swayed by the huge amounts of outside money pouring into the race -- at least $3 million.
Republican Dede Scozzafava, Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Doug Hoffman debated for an hour Thursday afternoon in Channel 9's studio in East Syracuse. They're facing off in a special election Tuesday to fill a vacancy in the House created when Republican John McHugh was appointed secretary of the Army in September.
"I for one am not going to be beholden to anyone when I get to Washington," said Hoffman, an accountant who has received more than $200,000 from the group Club for Growth. Hoffman said Owens would be indebted to the Democratic groups that have heavily funded his campaign. "I've had to be independent all my life, and I will not be swayed by any group that has supported me," said Owens, a Plattsburgh lawyer.
Scozzafava said she's received the least amount of help from outside the district, and that she would be independent. She said she's the best informed on local issues of the three, and implied that Hoffman was too focused on the national attention the race has garnered. It's drawn the attention of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, The Wall Street Journal and President Barack Obama. Some are calling it the first referendum on Obama's policies.
"I understand the issues better, and I've been available" each time a debate was scheduled, said Scozzafava, a 10-year member of the state Assembly. She said her opponents should "have an understanding of the issues rather than national syndicated shows."
Hoffman appeared to prove her point minutes later. Channel 9's Dan Cummings asked him about a government study of the effects of changing the water level of Lake Ontario that's been a topic of conversation in the North Country in recent years. "That issue I'm not familiar with," Hoffman said. He went on to say that he would be concerned about any economic impact it would have.
The study has been around for years, Scozzafava said. "There's no reason you don't have the background in that area," she said.
Scozzafava and Owens agreed congressional earmarks are a necessary means to getting federal money for local projects, including those that have benefited the Fort Drum Army post in the district. Hoffman has made his opposition to earmarks a key to his campaign, saying they're often used improperly, as was the case with Alaska's notorious "bridge to nowhere."
Scozzafava said the earmark system needs to be open to the public, but ending the practice would place all the power over spending with the White House.
"That's another scare tactic," Hoffman told her.
Hoffman said he was running against two liberals. His TV ads have accused Scozzafava of voting for tax increases for years as an assemblywoman.
Scozzafava accused both her opponents of repeatedly distorting the truth on that point. She said she's never voted for tax increases.
The candidates were asked whether Obama should send more troops to the war in Afghanistan. Scozzafava said the president should listen to his military commanders, who want more troops. Most important, he must decide quickly instead of continuing to "just wait and waffle" because that endangers U.S. troops, she said.
Hoffman said Obama needs to fully commit. "We need to be there to win, not just to be there," he said.
Owens wouldn't give an opinion on whether to send more troops, because he said it would only be based on newspaper reports. He would gather as much information as he could once he's in office, then decide, Owens said.
The hour-long debate was taped in the afternoon for evening broadcast. It will be aired again at 7 p.m. Sunday.
A Siena College poll two weeks ago found Owens held a narrow lead over Scozzafava, 33 percent to 29 percent. Hoffman was third at 23 percent, the poll found.
Neither Owens, 60, nor Hoffman, 59 has held elective office. Scozzafava, 49, has been a state Assemblywoman for 10 years and is the former mayor of Gouverneur.
If Owens wins the Nov. 3 election, it would be the first time in 150 years that a non-Republican held the seat. Scozzafava would the first woman to hold it, and Hoffman would be the first person in New York state history to be elected to a House seat running only on the Conservative Party line.