SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson and Republican Mia Love tried to articulate the differences between them while attempting to define each other at the same time during a spirited debate Thursday.
The 30-minute exchange on KSL-TV waded into familiar territory, with the 4th Congressional District candidates hammering on themes that have defined the nasty race so far and will likely carry it to Election Day.
Love and Matheson went after each other right out of the gate when asked to explain their key differences.
Matheson took Love to task for wanting to eliminate federal college student loans and voting to raise property taxes.
"Every day what I do is put Utah first, above party, politics or personal ambition. I think we need someone who's looking for that type of approach instead of the partisan gridlock that exists in Washington," Matheson said.
Love jumped on Matheson for supporting President Barack Obama and said a vote for the six-term congressman means more spending, bigger debt and less freedom.
"First and foremost, I'm a wife, a mother, a concerned citizen. I believe we can change lives right here on the ground," she said.
Love has floated a plan that would cut federal spending nearly $780 billion, including ending student financial aid and local police grants. Matheson has jumped on those two items throughout the campaign and did so again during the debate.
"I've actually put a list out there and I'm being treated like Paul Ryan in terms of looking at some of the specifics of the plan that may not be popular with voters," Love said.
Love called it a starting point for a discussion on federal spending. Matheson doesn't see it that way.
"This is not a starting point. This is a plan," he said waving the three-page document the Love campaign distributed before the state GOP convention in April.
Matheson said Love proposes cuts that would be damaging to economic opportunity. "When we want to tell students, 'Guess what? There's no student aid after she took it herself, that doesn't bode well for our future."
Love seem to backtrack on that issue, saying near the end of the debate, "I'm not calling for doing away with student loans." She advocated "free market" options that would keep college students from having to go into debt.
The candidates also tussled over the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
Matheson said he voted against the health care reform bill three times and also voted to repeal it because it doesn't solve the underlying problem of rising costs.
But Love pointed to a January 2011 vote, when Matheson voted against the repeal. "That's been his position. Anybody can look it up," she said. "That's been his position until this spring."
Matheson said he has always opposed the health care act but voted against the repeal last year so the Supreme Court could review the law. "It just frustrates her that she couldn't put me in this box," he said, adding "we're the same on this issue."
"We'll get you the information," Love retorted.
Love and Matheson also addressed the negative TV ads that have permeated the race, including those paid for by political action committees outside Utah.
Matheson said the campaign should focus on the issue of the day rather than overwhelm voters with simple rhetoric. "It puts an extra burden on all of us to separate the wheat from the chaff in these elections," he said.
Love said if candidates know PAC ads are putting out false information about their opponents, they should ask them to remove it.
Gov. Gary Herbert weighed in on the 4th District race Thursday, calling for an end to negativity at the taping of his monthly news conference.
"For those who are out there involved in the negative side of either of their campaigns, I call upon them to stop it. The people of Utah don't want to hear the negativity," the GOP governor said. "We want to hear what you can offer."