LAS VEGAS — Republican and Democratic candidates for Nevada's hottest congressional seats clashed over campaign ads, accuracy and distortions during two crucial debates Thursday, nine days before early voting begins.
Democratic state Sen. Steven Horsford and Republican businessman Danny Tarkanian shook hands at the start of their 4th District faceoff. But they agreed on nothing in their 30-minute debate, which was taped for statewide viewing and moderated by "Nevada Week In Review" host Mitch Fox at Vegas PBS studios.
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck and John Oceguera, his 3rd District challenger, were less cordial in their separate half-hour debate.
Nearly each time the camera turned his way, Tarkanian accused Horsford of misrepresenting his positions on issues including immigration, abortion, economic policies and Social Security.
Horsford, meanwhile, noted that Tarkanian lost previous bids for state and federal office, accused Tarkanian of "not being very clear or honest," and turned a question about same-sex marriage and former military policies on gay service members into an accusation that Tarkanian can't be trusted because he owes $17 million under a court order in a real estate business deal.
"He has a $17 million judgment hanging over his head," Horsford said near the end of the 30-minute debate, "and I ask the voters, 'Can we really trust someone to represent us who can't handle his own personal affairs?'"
Tarkanian responded by attacking Horsford for being sued in the past for unpaid bills, but also contributing campaign money to Dario Herrera, a former Clark County commissioner and Democratic congressional candidate convicted in 2006 in a Las Vegas bribery and corruption scandal and sent to federal prison.
"Talk about not handling your personal affairs," Tarkanian said.
In their debate, Heck and Oceguera, a former North Las Vegas firefighter, never reached across the stage to shake hands before trading verbal jabs over health care reform, Social Security, foreclosures in hard-hit Nevada and whether the pending expiration of tax cuts on small businesses and the wealthy would inhibit job growth.
Heck, the Republican seeking a second term, said uncertainty about tax policy hurts business owners. Oceguera, the state Assembly Democratic speaker, said he believes Congress should let Bush-era tax cuts expire.
Heck accused Oceguera several times of making "blatantly false" allegations, including in an ad about Heck's support for an abortion bill in Congress.
Heck said he believes taxpayer money should not be used to fund abortion. But he argues the ad refers to a House vote on a measure that never became law, and that it specifically exempted taxpayer-funded abortions in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother.
"I will stand by that ad," Oceguera said Thursday, adding that he is the son of a woman who was a victim of domestic violence.
Oceguera cast himself as a representative of the middle class from a neighborhood where all the other homes have been foreclosed, sold short or are currently worth less than the value of their mortgage.
Nevada's 3rd District is extremely competitive, with Democrats holding a slight voter registration edge of about 38.5 percent to 36.9 percent for Republicans. But about 18 percent in the district call themselves nonpartisan, according to current Clark County Elections Department figures.
The brand-new 4th District stretches across Clark, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Lyon, Mineral, Nye and White Pine counties. It has a Democratic voter registration advantage and is about 27 percent Hispanic and 16 percent black — demographics that could favor Horsford, Nevada's first black Senate majority leader.