CONCORD, N.H. — It took a while for kindling to catch Tuesday night in the New Hampshire Senate race, but after almost an hour of careful back-and-forth, incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Scott Brown engaged in a fiery debate.
Shaheen attacked Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who moved his primary residence to the state last year, as someone driven by his own ambition rather than a desire to serve New Hampshire residents. She accused him of shopping for a new political office after losing his 2012 race against Elizabeth Warren.
“I don’t think New Hampshire is a consolation prize. We need a senator who is going to put New Hampshire first,” she said in their first live televised debate of the general election season.
Brown painted Shaheen as a lockstep partisan, tying her to President Obama, who has grown unpopular in New Hampshire.
“She has, in fact, voted with the president over 99 percent of the time,” he said, repeating a common refrain.
Brown said Shaheen had gone to Washington after she was elected in 2008 with a promise of independence, but all her time there had changed her.
The one-hour forum, which aired on New England Cable News and was moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC News, touched on a wide range of topics from energy policy to the legalization of marijuana to immigration.
But throughout the debate, which began with cordial exchanges and devolved to harsher rhetoric, each circled back to the main thrusts of their campaigns.
Brown portrayed himself as an agent for changing a gridlocked Capitol and cited his record when he represented Massachusetts in the Senate. “You can get things done, but you have to step back from party politics and partisanship,” he said.
Shaheen, a former governor, portrayed herself as someone focused relentlessly on bringing solutions down to the local level to New Hampshire residents.
After being attacked by Brown for voting so frequently with Obama, she replied with different sets of numbers.
She cited 259 people working at a federal prison in New Hampshire she worked to help open, and the more than 100,000 veterans who, she said, can now get care closer to home because of legislation she pressed for.
One of the sharper exchanges came on energy policy, with Brown accusing Shaheen of voting to pave the way for a national energy tax, something Shaheen denied.
Brown pointed to a 2013 vote she took in favor of a budget amendment. That amendment did not create a new energy tax, but required that if “a fee on carbon pollution” were to be implemented, all revenue from it would be “returned to the American people” in the form of federal deficit reduction, reduced federal tax rates, or other measures.
Some of the clearest differences between the candidates were on issues related to immigration, something Brown often talks about on the campaign trail.
Brown repeatedly underscored his support for securing the border, while Shaheen noted what she said were the positive aspects of a Senate-passed immigration reform bill.
She voted for the bipartisan legislation, now pending in the House, which would provide many people who are in the United States illegally with a path to citizenship.
In one of the many exchanges in which he emphasized national and international issues, Brown said he voted to secure the border and that needs to happen first. He said the president’s policy on immigration is to “give status to people who aren’t entitled to it. I can’t support that.”
Todd pressed the candidates on what the metric is for a secure border.
“You know when it’s secure when people don’t come across it,” Brown said, prompting audience laughter and applause.
Shaheen said the Senate bill would put strong border-securing measures in place, and she knocked Brown’s campaign emphasis on border security.
“What Scott Brown has done is to grandstand on this issue,” she said.
Each candidate’s record on supporting small businesses was also at issue in the debate.
Brown attacked with a familiar line, referring to his opponent’s low rating with the National Federation of Independent Business, based on votes she took during 2013 and 2014.
Shaheen shot back, defending her record and saying that the group, which has endorsed Brown, was funded by the Koch brothers, the wealthy duo involved in promoting conservative political positions.
She also underscored her support and Brown’s opposition to a law that was aimed at boosting small business access to capital among other measures.
There were also areas of agreement: Both oppose the legalization of marijuana or changing its federal classification — it’s currently categorized with drugs such as heroin.
And even moments of praise. At the beginning of the forum Brown spoke highly of some of Shaheen’s actions as governor.
And while the bright displays of fireworks only really came at the end of the debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts, both candidates will have a chance to go at it again.
There are two more televised debates scheduled before the Nov. 4 election.
The race is among those that will determine whether Republicans win control of the Senate.Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.