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Portland Press Herald - Rivals Spar Over Iraq, Partisanship, Economy

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Portland Press Herald - Rivals Spar Over Iraq, Partisanship, Economy

Positions outlined as race tightens three weeks before Nov. 4 election


With three weeks remaining before Election Day, the candidates for U.S. Senate in Maine honed their messages Tuesday in a midday debate punctuated by disagreements over partisanship, energy policy and the impact of Bush administration economic and foreign policies.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, who has held the 1st Congressional District seat since 1996, highlighted the differences that he and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins have on these and other issues.

Allen contended that Collins was a supporter of Bush administration actions on terrorism and the economy that he said have diminished the nation's global influence and severely damaged the economy.

"This is not about partisanship," he said. "The question is whether we're doing the right things for Maine."

Collins maintained that Allen consistently votes the Democratic position, reflecting a trend toward partisanship that has prevented Congress from solving problems.

She pointed to instances when she deviated from Republican Party policies or worked with Democrats to fashion legislation on energy, the war in Iraq and other concerns.

"That bipartisan approach has made me effective in dealing with many of the challenges of our time," said Collins, who is seeking a third six-year term.

The candidates appeared before about 300 members of the public in a debate sponsored by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, News 8 WMTW and Central Maine Newspapers.

The event, held at the University of Southern Maine, was streamed live over the Internet, and the final half was broadcast live on Channel 8.

During the hourlong debate, Allen and Collins fielded questions from a panel of journalists, as well as from audience members and viewers on the Internet.

Allen said he was proud that he voted against the war in Iraq and supported a definite timeline for troop withdrawal. He said the war was based on "ginned-up information" and has been mismanaged, and that the United States should leave and focus on its domestic needs.

"We have got to set an end," he said. "We have got to take care of our own."

Collins praised the sacrifices of U.S. troops and said she would support a reduced troop presence when Iraq stabilizes and stops providing a haven for terrorists.

She also noted that she supported a quicker troop drawdown than President Bush proposed, and that she helped write a law, with Democratic co-sponsors, requiring Iraq to spend its oil revenues on the war.

Responding to a question about offshore oil drilling, Collins said she belongs to a bipartisan group of 20 senators who support an energy bill that includes a limited increase in offshore activity.

Collins said she also backed a proposal for more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is already a large piping system and network of wells in place.

"Oil is not our future, but it is our present," she said.

Allen opposes an expansion into new drilling areas outside the Gulf of Mexico, but said oil companies should do more drilling on lands already under lease. He said federal policy should focus more on alternative energy, and that half the nation's cars should be powered by electricity.

Both candidates said it was up to individual states to legislate same-sex marriages, and both called for aggressive new federal financial regulations to protect the interests of taxpayers in the wake of the $700 billion rescue package for Wall Street.

Allen said the financial bailout has adequate provisions to protect taxpayers and will help mortgage holders who are at risk of foreclosure. He said Congress will hold hearings soon on the financial crisis.

Collins also expressed confidence in taxpayer protections in the bailout plan. She said the plan would have major benefits by freeing up credit for small businesses and other borrowers.

The candidates also took similar positions on the question of federal earmarks, which are attachments to legislation that provide funding for specific projects in a state.

Allen said the process of funding local projects can be abused, but he said without an earmarking provision, the executive Office of Management and Budget would exert too much control over federal spending.

"They don't have a clue about Maine," he said.

Collins said she proposes very few earmarks but has sought money for worthwhile projects, such as a new fireboat for the city of Portland.

Asked about mistakes they had made in office, the two candidates offered sharply differing examples.

Collins said she regrets voting against normalizing trade relations with Cuba during her early years in the Senate. She said she changed her position on the issue after considering whether economic limits would foreclose trade opportunities for Maine businesses.

"I realized that the best way to change (Cuba) was to expose them to Americans," she said.

Allen said he wishes he hadn't voted for the No Child Left Behind legislation, the controversial education law that requires states to use standardized achievement tests. He said he was swayed by assurances from others that the bill was a good idea.

"I should have trusted my own instincts," Allen said.

As the Nov. 4 election draws nearer, polls show that Collins maintains a lead in the race, but that Allen has closed the gap from about 15 percentage points, in July and August, to 8 to 10 points early in October.

The tightening race mirrors a national trend detected in numerous polls following the Wall Street crisis, which has eroded Republican leads in a number of Senate elections.

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