NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Microphones on the fritz, the audience yelled for the US Senate candidates to speak up. But in their first debate, both Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen got their points across loud and clear.
Brown portrayed the incumbent as a stagnant, status quo senator, voting in lockstep with President Obama and part of a dysfunctional Washington that is not looking out for everyday voters.
Shaheen painted Brown as untrustworthy on key issues that matter to New Hampshire residents, from protecting women’s access to abortion and contraception to protecting Granite State jobs. She described him as a supporter of outsourcing and oil companies over regular folks.
In a wide-ranging forum that touched on issues from foreign policy to health care to immigration, Shaheen and Brown remained cordial, mostly cool, and keen on crafting the sharpest possible contrast with each other. Both successfully conveyed their messages without landing any knockout blows or stumbling into campaign-shifting gaffes.
Asked how to make the federal government more efficient, Brown had a quick response: “Being an independent senator is a good start,” he said.
“That is a difference between Senator Shaheen and me,” Brown continued. “She does vote with the president and has voted with him over 99 percent of the time.”
Shaheen, a former governor vying for her second Senate term, also highlighted differences.
“This is an area where my opponent and I disagree,” said Shaheen. “He continues to support subsidies to the oil companies to the tune of over $20 billion,” and opposes closing loopholes that give companies incentives to ship jobs overseas, she said.
Shaheen also questioned Brown’s commitment to protecting women’s access to abortion and birth control.
“You have to not listen just to what Scott Brown has to say about this issue with respect to prochoice, but you have to look at what he’s done,’’ she said.
She cited Brown’s support of the Blunt Amendment, a 2012 piece of legislation that would have amended the controversial health care overhaul law to allow insurance plans and employers to deny coverage for services, including contraception, that are contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Brown robustly defended his record on issues important to women, noting that he was a cosponsor of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 .
Brown had a simple response to Shaheen’s attack: He said both he and Shaheen are “prochoice,” and both believe women should have access to health care.
“To think that I don’t support women’s rights and the ability to get contraception is just a false premise,” Brown said. “I have since I was 18 years old.”
Brown spent much of the debate tying Shaheen to the president, who polls have found is very unpopular in a state that twice voted for him.
As he has since he officially kicked off his campaign in April, Brown criticized the Affordable Care Act, saying it is having a negative impact on New Hampshire residents and businesses, and expressed strong support for repealing it.
But the former Massachusetts senator also worked to convey his bipartisan credentials to voters.
“If your issue is [frustration with] gridlock, then I’m the guy to send down there,” he said, underscoring his independent voting record when he was a senator from Massachusetts.
Immigration, an issue Brown often talks about on the trail, loomed large in the debate. Brown emphasized his support for securing the border, while Shaheen repeatedly noted she had voted for the Senate-passed immigration reform bill. The bipartisan legislation, which is pending in the US House, would provide many people in the United States illegally with a path to citizenship. Brown indicated that he believed the bill was too lenient on “the amnesty issue.”
Some of the back-and-forth also touched on the Islamic State militant group, with both candidates arguing that they understand the danger and support action to degrade the organization. A recent television ad from Brown criticized Shaheen as confused about the nature of that threat.
The forum, put on by the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council, took place in a hotel basement event space in front of more than 100 people, many having lunch. At least 10 video cameras — most from news media, some from partisan trackers — recorded the exchange.
There were lighter moments prompted by moderator George Epstein, chairman of The Echo Group, a behavioral health care software company.
He asked about the candidates’ napping habits: Neither takes them.
The last book they really enjoyed? “Inferno,” a Dan Brown novel, Brown said. “The Path to Power,” a Robert Caro tome on Lyndon Johnson, Shaheen replied.
Fluffier fare aside, the overarching effort from both candidates was to draw as clear a distinction as possible with their opponent ahead of the election.
The New Hampshire race is one of those likely to determine whether Republicans win control of the US Senate.
After the debate, a reporter asked Shaheen if she had clearly emphasized the contrast between her and Brown.
It is just the beginning of that effort, she replied, tight smile on her face, never breaking stride, as she headed for the door.