PHOENIX — Republican Jeff Flake tried to link Democrat Richard Carmona to President Barack Obama's policies as the two U.S. Senate candidates debated Wednesday for the first time.
Carmona, meanwhile, charged that Flake's fierce opposition to special funding requests known as earmarks has hurt economic development in Arizona. He said business leaders and a mayor in metro Phoenix have complained that Flake's ideological opposition to earmarks for roads, public-works and water projects has hurt efforts to attract new businesses to the state.
Flake, a six-term congressman, and Carmona, who served as surgeon general under former President George W. Bush, are running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Libertarian Marc Victor, a criminal defense lawyer who served in the U.S. Marines, is also running.
Flake said Carmona is an "echo" of the Obama administration in that he believes that job creation is the job of the government rather than private enterprise.
"He has adopted the Democratic playbook," Flake said during Wednesday's one-hour debate produced by KAET-TV in Phoenix.
Carmona responded, saying he has been an independent his whole life.
"I am not here to defend the Obama administration," he said.
Flake has portrayed Carmona as a hand-picked rubber stamp for Obama. Democrats recruited Carmona, who until late last year was a registered independent, to run for Kyl's seat after it became clear that then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wouldn't campaign because of head injuries she suffered during the January 2011 shooting rampage in Tucson. One of the recruiting pitches came from the president.
Victor focused on government spending and said both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for increasing the size of government. "They have caused the problem," Victor said.
Flake touted his opposition to earmarks as a move away from patronage and a move toward basing funding for projects on merit. "Arizona is far better without earmarks," Flake said.
Carmona said some earmarks aren't government pork spending, but rather an investment in communities.
Flake and Carmona agreed that Medicare needs to be overhauled, but they differed on how to go about it.
Flake supported a GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would change how future Medicare beneficiaries now under age 55 would get health care coverage. Ryan's plan would provide future seniors with subsidies to help buy a private health plan or buy coverage through a government-run program modeled after the current system.
Carmona said he opposes Ryan's plan because it transfers financial risks from the government to seniors and that seniors with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure will have difficulty getting coverage. Carmona proposed reducing health care costs for the elderly by focusing more on preventing diseases and by getting rid of more waste and fraud.
One clear difference between the candidates is on immigration.
Carmona said he admires Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for their attempts at legislation to toughen border security and give illegal immigrants already in the United States a pathway to citizenship.
Flake in the past also has supported comprehensive immigration reform but adopted a narrower position on immigration when he announced his Senate candidacy last year.
Carmona said his GOP opponent changed his position to appeal to voters, while Flake said he eventually concluded that no one will trust the federal government to fix America's immigration woes until border security improves.
Other debates among the Senate candidates are scheduled for Oct. 15 in Tucson and Oct. 25 in Yuma.