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The Advocate - U.S. Senate Candidates Debate Iraq, Health Care

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Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger John Kennedy resumed their campaign arguments Sunday night with heated disputes over Iraq, who should be the next president and health care.

Kennedy used the second debate of the U. S. Senate race to accuse Landrieu of backing a "choose to lose" strategy in Iraq and backing troop withdrawal timetables pushed by politicians, not military experts.

"But you know when we will be able to come home?" Kennedy asked. "When the generals tell us that we can."

But Landrieu charged that it was Kennedy, then a Democratic contender for the U.S. Senate in 2004, who backed a "hard timetable" deadline to get troops out of Iraq and that she has never backed any such plan.

Kennedy, who joined the GOP last year, later denied her comment.

Landrieu said she has long supported U.S. troops but contends that new attention is needed to combat renewed terrorist actions in Afghanistan.

Landrieu is seeking her third term. Kennedy is state treasurer.

The election is Nov. 4.

Both contenders spent one hour answering questions in a debate at LSU sponsored by the Council for a Better Louisiana and Louisiana Public Broadcasting. LPB carried the debate on stations statewide, including Baton Rouge.

In another dispute, Landrieu tried to rebuff Kennedy's charges that her support of Democrat presidential nominee Barack Obama over Republican nominee John McCain would play a role in who wins the Senate race.

"I know you are trying very hard," Landrieu told Kennedy.

"But Sen. McCain's coattails are not long enough for you," she said, triggering cheers from some in the audience.

Kennedy repeatedly quizzed the Democrat on why she prefers Obama, who he noted has been widely rated as the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate.

The Republican has repeatedly said that he fervently backs McCain, and that returning senators to Washington is not the way to repair a system that he often calls broken and "in the ditch."

"That is a fundamental difference between the two of us," Kennedy said.

"If you like the way things are going in Washington then I am probably not your guy," he said.

In another area, Kennedy called health-care coverage a responsibility while Landrieu called it a right.

Kennedy also accused Landrieu of sponsoring a health-care proposal that amounts to "socialized medicine."

He said her proposal would end employer-provided health insurance plans and replace it with a new system that includes costly federal government-offered health plans.

Kennedy said he favors retaining employer-offered health-care plans and $5,000 tax credits for families to buy their own insurance.

Landrieu disputed Kennedy's claims and called her plan a bipartisan effort to aid those who cannot find affordable health insurance.

Some taxpayers would qualify for government subsidies, she said, but it can be done without a tax hike and help those who go to bed each night wondering how to grapple with health-care costs.

Landrieu also renewed her criticism of Kennedy's stance on a recent $1.1 billion federal bill to help farmers hurt by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

She said that, while Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Agriculture Secretary Mike Strain backed the push, Kennedy sided with the Republican U.S. senator — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — who got it shelved for now.

"Why did you oppose it and why did you say it was not the right thing to do?" she asked.

Kennedy disputed that and said he was sorry that the bill died.

In other areas, Kennedy said Landrieu has done too little to improve FEMA since hurricanes Katrina and Rita despite having a key legislative role that oversees the controversial agency.

Landrieu said progress has been made since 2005 but that more improvements are needed.

Questions were asked by Barry Erwin, president of CABL and Beth Courtney, president and chief executive officer of LPB. Organizers said some of the questions came from citizens, who submitted them by e-mail, and students in the audience from LSU and Southern University.

Questions dealt with health care, the nation's economy and lessons learned from recent hurricanes and the federal response.

Sponsors asked students from LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College to attend.

Minutes before the debate, Kennedy asked students if they were getting credit to attend, to which they replied yes.

"I knew there had to be a reason." he quipped.

Two more debates are scheduled before the election.

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