By Luke Hobbs
Of the 12 questions asked during last night's debate in the 3rd Congressional District, by far the most interesting were David Whitaker's and Steve Womack's questions to each other. The candidates faced off at the Fort Smith Convention Center last night in the final debate before the election.
Womack began his question to Whitaker by making a statement, as candidates often do when given the chance to ask a question of another candidate. "People don't know much about you," he told Whitaker, pointing out that unlike Womack, Whitaker does not have much of a public record. He went on to ask Whitaker about whether he had ever donated any money to Barack Obama.
Whitaker said he had donated to Obama's presidential campaign as a private citizen in 2008, but since beginning his run to Congress, he had not had the money to donate to anyone. Womack followed up by asking what were Whitaker's stances on traditional marriage, abortion, and homosexuals serving in the military.
Whitaker responded that he is ready for the federal government "to get back to the business of running the federal government and get out of people's lives."
"Pro-life or pro-choice?" Womack asked.
"I reject your dichotomy," Whitaker said. "I consider myself pro-life." He said he was proud of his Catholic heritage, which taught him how precious life is. "But my mother also taught me that we shouldn't try to tell other people how to live."
Womack repeated, "Pro-life or pro-choice?"
Whitaker took a breath and leaned close to the microphone. "Pro-gress," he said.
Next it was Whitaker's turn to question Womack, and he asked if his opponent would support abolishing the minimum wage. "I don't know," Womack admitted. He said that the current rate of $7.25 an hour seemed fine, but that he also doesn't think it's the federal government's job to interfere with how much people are paid. "But it's not a front-burner issue," he emphasized. "In all the time I've spent traveling this district and talking to people, no one has ever asked me about the minimum wage."
Whitaker noted that several Republican Congressmen have expressed their desire to remove the minimum wage, and asked, "If your colleagues in Congress bring up this bill, as they've said they want to, which way will you vote?" Womack said he couldn't commit either way at this time.
The candidates also disagreed on the best way to cut government spending. Womack said Congress should look at removing the Department of Education, though he stopped short of saying he supported abolishing it. Whitaker argued that cutting Cabinet departments would not make a dent in the federal deficit. He pointed to unnecessary defense spending, saying that many of the United States' current military programs are designed to generate jobs rather than provide for defense.
At one point Womack was asked whether there was anything good in the federal health care overhaul, which he and many other Republicans have heavily criticized and vowed to repeal. He thought for a moment, then said that some provisions of the bill were noble ideas -- such as providing insurance for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing better deals for small businesses -- but those ideas were negated by the fact that the bill would cause insurance costs to rise. Whitaker said that while he disagreed with much of what was in the bill, he also saw good things in it, such as the "noble ideas" mentioned by Womack.
The candidates were also asked to what extent the United States should support Israel. Womack said the U.S. has no business inserting itself into peace talks. "We should stay out of the discussions," he said, "while giving positive support." Whitaker disagreed, saying, "They will not find peace by themselves." While affirming that he supported Israel, he said he also believes the U.S. should act the way a true friend would, and reprimand the Israeli government when necessary.
The debate was moderated by Dr. Robert Willoughby, a professor of history and government at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Eight of the questions came from the media (with Progressive Arkansas and the Southwest Times Record contributing four questions each) and two questions were selected from the audience.
In an exit poll, 51 members of the audience rated Womack as the winner of the debate, with 31 picking Whitaker and 3 undecided. Twelve people marked that the debate had caused them to change their minds about their votes. Of those, 8 indicated that they would vote for Whitaker, and 4 decided to vote for Womack.