First of midterm debates get down and dirty quickly

The first two big midterm election debates, held Sunday, began what are expected to be two of the muddiest and most expensive Senate races this year, with Democrats and Republicans each rolling out a relatively inexperienced challenger to topple a seasoned incumbent.

The first two big midterm election debates, held Sunday, began what are expected to be two of the muddiest and most expensive Senate races this year, with Democrats and Republicans each rolling out a relatively inexperienced challenger to topple a seasoned incumbent.

One of the states, New Jersey, is accustomed to confrontational debates. The other, Montana, got a dose of what it means to play host to one of the highest-profile races in the country. The New Jersey debate was notably muddier, but the two candidates in Montana got their shots in as well.

Tom Kean, the 37-year-old Republican state senator looking to knock off longtime congressman and recently appointed Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezSenate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico Democrats block energy spending bill over Iran amendment Senate close to voting on Mexico ambassador MORE (D-N.J.), spoke stiltedly and repeated stock phrases but stayed on the attack to peg his opponent as corrupt.

Jon Tester, the Democratic state Senate president who rallied from behind in the primaries despite lagging in fundraising, is facing third-term incumbent GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana. Tester began the debate looking anxious and fidgeting with a pen but soon settled in and weathered some bullying from the savvy Burns.

The first half of the Montana debate focused heavily on the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Asked for his strategy in Iraq, Burns said simply, “Win.” He then began baiting Tester, saying the challenger’s opposition to the Patriot Act and President Bush’s wire-tapping program are typical of “the way the liberal mind works.”

“I’m not real sure he’s serious about the security of this country,” Burns said.

Tester responded coolly, calling the attack “incredible” and saying any security shortcomings rest on the shoulders of Burns and the Republican-led Congress.

Then, in what would become a theme in the debate, Burns began addressing Tester directly, borrowing the moderator’s traditional role of asking questions. Burns tried to get Tester to say how he would vote on the Senate immigration bill, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the line-item veto and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Tester didn’t bite. At one point, in a snippy exchange, he teased Burns for the way Burns was mispronouncing “judiciary.” Burns shot back asking how Tester would vote on Alito and then repeated the justice’s name several times, enunciating to show that he knew how to pronounce it. Tester again sounded out “judiciary.”

Craig Wilson, an expert in state politics at Montana State University-Billings, said Tester appeared to be taking a page out of the book of Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.), who nearly knocked off Burns in 2000 and is a popular governor.

“He started out and took him on pretty much head-on; once in a while he was a little bit irreverent in terms of his remarks,” Wilson said, referring to Tester’s assertion that Burns spends “like a drunken sailor.” Wilson said Burns helped himself by getting the word “liberal” in several times.

In New Jersey, Kean was wounded hours before the debate began, as reports were published that morning in The New York Times and The Star-Ledger of Newark that contradict some of his attacks on the senator’s alleged role in a kickback scheme.

Kean brushed off questions about the articles and stayed on the offensive, at one point heeding a questioner’s challenge to look Menendez directly in the eye and tell him he is unethical.

“Bob, I think you are unethical,” Kean said before accusing Menendez of sending prisoners with noisy lawnmowers to disrupt a political speech he recently gave.

Menendez responded by pointing to money Kean has received from the state-regulated casino industry, asserting that Kean skirted the law in doing so and then saying he had changed his view on a smoking ban because of the contributions.

When the candidates were given the chance to ask a question of each other, Kean ducked Menendez’s question about whether his campaign is producing a film reminiscent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election.

“Tom Kean Jr. showed the people of New Jersey today that he’s not ready to lead, but he’s ready to lie,” Menendez spokesman Matthew Miller said after the debate.

Kean also accused Menendez of having someone follow him around with a camera, asking personal questions. The New Jersey Democratic State Committee recently posted a video on its website of Kean trying to elude reporters after he failed to appear with Menendez at an event.

In the video, Kean ducks into an elevator but is followed by the reporters, who ask him about Menendez’s claim that Kean is running a dirty campaign. Echoing a frequent phrase from the debate, Kean says that he’s proud of his record. The elevator door opens and he leaves, apparently on the same floor he got on.

Kean and Menendez were also set to square off in a second debate Monday night.