By Mike Baker
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall quickly diverged from each other Saturday on how the government should handle the nation's economy and debt.
In a joint appearance coming just days after Marshall won her party's nomination, Burr repeatedly highlighted the nation's $13 trillion debt that's expected to continue growing. He warned that the United States could soon be compared to countries like Greece that are buckling under the weight of their obligations.
"The answer is: Let's stop spending," Burr said. He acknowledged after the event that Republicans have been part of the problem. He voted several times for Bush administration budgets that drastically increased the debt.
Marshall, however, said cuts alone wouldn't save the country's economy.
"We've got to make appropriate investments - the same thing you would do to make your business more profitable," Marshall said. "You can't cut your way into huge profitability."
Libertarian Party nominee Michael Beitler said the Democrats and Republicans have both contributed to the nation's debt problems.
The forum hosted by the North Carolina Bar Association showed voters distinct messages among the candidates at a time when Americans are grappling with questions about the role of government and regulation following an economic collapse and an ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Marshall pointed to stronger regulation, saying the mentality on Capitol Hill has been that Wall Street will heal itself and that market forces will take care of things. She said that regulators need more funding, and that businesses have had too cozy of a relationship with the government officials that oversee them.
"We've seen what happens when capitalism takes over," said Marshall, a regulator herself as North Carolina's secretary of state.
Burr said government shouldn't be playing a bigger role with a stronger hand but should focus on regulating the products that were overlooked - such as the complex derivatives blamed in the nation's economic collapse - and to make sure the existing regulators are doing their jobs.
"I fear that we're headed down a path that will be too overburdensome, too duplicative, it will raise the cost of credit, will choke the credit for small business and for individual loans," Burr said.
They had similar differences on offshore oil drilling. Marshall said lawmakers like Burr had allowed deepwater drilling despite the "disastrous" risks that are now apparent. The well gushing into the Gulf is a deepwater well.
Marshall said she opposes drilling off North Carolina's coast.
Burr said oil companies had been forced to go into the riskier territory because they were "chased" away from land drilling and shallow water drilling. He said officials need to ensure that deepwater drilling is safe before quickly allowing it to continue.
President Barack Obama's administration had imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but a federal judge struck it down. The government is appealing that decision.
But ending such drilling entirely, Burr said, would lead to economic disaster.
"You'll have no economic growth," he said. "You'll have no job expansion. You'll have a contraction like you've never dreamed of."