BIG SKY — U.S. Sen Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, traveled down familiar paths in their first live debate Saturday, with Rehberg casting Tester as a “rubber stamp” for President Barack Obama’s policies and Tester saying he’s a voice of reason trying to solve the nation’s problems.
Rehberg also stole a page out of the Ronald Reagan debate playbook, paraphrasing the Gipper’s famous “are you better off now than you were four years ago” line in his 1980 debate with then-President Jimmy Carter.
“Do you think your children are going to be better off than you?’” Rehberg said he recently asked a group of Montanans. “Nobody’s hand went up. Nobody feels good about the direction the country is taking … and that concerns me.
“How do we put people to work? We don’t do it by supporting the president’s’ failed economic policies.”
Tester, a Democrat running for re-election to a second term, fought back by saying that he often disagrees with the president — on the bailout of auto companies, wolf management, youth-labor regulation on farms — but that he’s been part of cutting taxes for the middle class by billions of dollars and supporting cuts in some spending programs, as proposed by the president.
The two men, who shared the debate stage with Libertarian Dan Cox, had their sharpest exchanges over health care reform, banking reform and money in politics — but mostly kept it civil in a 90-minute debate before the Montana Newspaper Association’s annual meeting in Big Sky.
The only time things got personal came in the final moments, when Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, took a poke at Rehberg’s subdivision of part of his family ranching property near Billings, suggesting Rehberg isn’t really a rancher.
“I guess someone doesn’t know the difference between a farm and a ranch,” Rehberg said, but then reverted to talking about his stance against federal regulations and spending.
Cox, a businessman from Hamilton, said he was the only candidate offering a truly different approach, which would severely pare back an obtrusive government, which he equated with a fire that is beginning to burn
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