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Tester, Rehberg get personal in Montana debate for Senate seat

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) questioned Rep. Denny Rehberg’s (R-Mont.) morals in a testy Monday night debate, ripping the congressman for suing the city of Billings's fire department and for being a lobbyist.

“Congressman Rehberg has sued each and every one of you,” Tester said after asking how many people in the crowd lived in Billings. “And the first thing you do when firefighters come and you’ve got a grass fire and they put it out and they burn the bushes and they put their butt on the line is you don’t respond and say thank you by filing a lawsuit with monetary damages, which is exactly what he did. That’s not working together, that’s not building the state of Montana, that’s not moving your community forward.”

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Rehberg avoided saying why he had pushed the lawsuit, which he recently dropped after it became a political problem for him. Instead, he pivoted to tying Tester to President Obama, something he did throughout the night.

“Nobody has brought up the fire except for you,” he responded testily. “You know what they talk about? They talk about the irresponsible decision-making that goes with voting with President Obama 95 percent of the time, on things like Obamacare, on things like the failed stimulus,” before saying the “monetary loss” is a loss of jobs and money for local projects because of Tester’s plan.

The exchange offered a microcosm of the race as a whole: Rehberg repeatedly attacked Tester for voting with national Democrats on a range of issues in the GOP-leaning state and often referred to “Senator Tester and Barack Obama” in one breath, while Tester defended his votes before pivoting to more personal attacks against the congressman.

The two are locked in a tight race, though Rehberg has led by a narrow margin in most polls. Tester has tried to define Rehberg as a wealthy, out-of-touch Washington insider, while Rehberg has mostly attacked Tester on policy, though he’s also gone after Tester’s own lobbyist contributions.

Tester came off as the smoother debater, making his points quickly and with biting humor, while Rehberg flailed his hands wildly, rushed through responses and stuttered at times. But both landed punches throughout the night.

“If you want to talk about job creation and what cerates jobs you’re right, it is the small businesses, it isn’t the multi-millionaires like yourself that create the jobs,” Tester said at one point during an exchange over whether tax increases should be part of the discussion about how to shrink the national debt.

“Feed the beast, that’s all they want to do,” Rehberg fired back.

The two also attacked each other over lobbyist donations, which Tester started by ripping Rehberg for taking taxpayer-funded trips.

“You want to talk about lobbyists? You're the number one recipient of money from lobbyists,” Rehberg fired back. “The difference is I accept their information, you accept their cash, $1.8 million in the last two years from lobbyists and Wall Street.”

“I think it’s rich that you would point this out,” Tester said. “You were the one who was a lobbyist, a paid lobbyist, you were the one who said you depended on them to make your decisions, you’re the guy who said the revolving door is no big deal. Well, it is a big deal. So it’s tough when you point a finger at somebody and three fingers are pointing right straight back at you.”

Tester complained time and again that Rehberg was ignoring him and trying to run against Obama, though he squirmed at the top of the debate when asked why he was supporting the president, toying with a pen and discussing Obama’s foreign policy successes before quickly moving on.

“You’re running against me,” Tester fired at Rehberg at one point, drawing laughs from a noisy crowd apparently filled more with Tester supporters. “This is the race, okay? You’re not running against President Obama. You could have done that but you chose not to.”

“I don't need to morph you into Barack Obama — you did it all by yourself,” Rehberg retorted. “You listened to what he wanted and you voted for a failed stimulus, you voted for a president’s failed healthcare reform that did not reform healthcare, and you voted for cap and trade that is nothing more than an energy tax.”

Tester said he hadn’t voted for cap and trade but for a motion to begin discussing energy policy.

Rehberg pointed out areas he’d disagreed with his party, including on Paul Ryan’s plan to partly privatize Medicare, a number of trade bills and his support for passing the Farm Bill.

At another point, Tester ripped Rehberg for ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that edited Tester into a photo with Obama, which was discovered because Tester is missing three fingers on his hand due to a farm accident. Last week, the state GOP did the same thing, photoshopping Tester’s head onto Rick Santorum’s body in a mailer.

“There have been plenty of lies that have been said about me from the beginning to the end. For the last 18 months we’ve had a continual immersion in them. I guess the most interesting one was the one that gave me five fingers on my left hand,” he said, waving his two-fingered hand in the air to laiughs. “I thought I’d be able to play basketball, play wide receiver and all that stuff again, didn’t happen.

“Hey, last week they sent out a flyer that had my face on the body of Rick Santorum. It didn’t take long to figure that out, if you know what I mean,” he said, walking out past the podium and raising his arms to show off his large belly.

Rehberg fired back by saying he’d been misrepresented in ads as well. “Everybody’s playing that game,” he said.