Contradictions in Ariz. Senate debate

The first Arizona Senate debate featured evasions and surprises from both candidates as Rep. Jeff Flake (R) and Democrat Richard Carmona jockeyed for the lead in a close contest that could sway control of the Senate.

In an attempt to moderate their positions, both distanced themselves from connections to some of the pricklier issues for either party. Carmona said he wouldn't have voted for President Obama's healthcare reform law, although he has previously expressed support for the law and called its passage "brave." And Flake said he hasn't and wouldn't sign a pledge not to raise taxes promoted by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, despite being listed by the group among the officials who have signed the pledge.

Flake's campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the discrepancy.

Carmona's position reflects the fact that he's running in a red-leaning state where Mitt Romney currently leads Obama. He'll need to convince voters he's a centrist if he expects to win in November.

Flake attempted from the start of the race to tie Carmona to Obama particularly and Democratic policies in general. And it's a fight Flake continued on Wednesday night, arguing that Carmona's positions, ranging from earmarks to healthcare, reflected the position of the Obama administration.

Carmona defended earmarks, arguing that "all earmarks are not pork," adding that "there are necessities that the federal government can provide" — pointing to investments in infrastructure as necessities that small businesses simply can't handle on their own. But Flake, who has been criticized for failing to bring federal funding to his district, said that Carmona's view was similar to Obama's.

"Here's this philosophy again, that all jobs have to be created by the federal government. That's why Dr. Carmona is comfortable in the Democratic Party, because that's the attitude of the Obama administration — that unless the federal government somehow creates it, it didn't exist," Flake said.

The two did agree on a few issues, including full extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, even for the wealthy. Flake toed the Republican line in favor of a full extension, and Carmona said he'd be willing to extend them fully only if Congress in turn took up comprehensive tax reform — a position that puts him in opposition to some Democrats, who would let the cuts for the top earners expire.

Carmona also allowed that some Republican economic views, like supply-side economics, hold validity, but insisted that "the markets are much more complicated than that." On taxes, however, he said that he agreed with Flake that "we have to do everything we can to lower the tax rates."

"We don't want to raise taxes now because that'll push us further into a recession, but we need to start generating some income," Carmona added.

And on defense, both agreed that the U.S. should take whatever means necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

But the debate became contentious when it shifted to a discussion of healthcare.

Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general and a physician, asserted that both parties were wrong on healthcare because they hadn't addressed the main drivers of cost. In the short term, he suggested eliminating waste, fraud and abuse from the system, and, in the long term, he said there would need to be a focus on preventive care.

"The public can't get [an insurance] card anymore and just do what they want to do — smoke, drink excessively, don't wear a seat belt, don't wear a helmet," he said.

Flake hammered Carmona for failing to offer a specific healthcare plan of his own.

"We're hearing again what we've heard throughout this campaign, what somebody referred to as 'happy-talk bromides' that absolutely nobody could disagree with," Flake said, charging that while Carmona hadn't yet put out a detailed plan to fix healthcare, Republicans in the House had put forward a plan that he supported.

In response, Carmona shifted to an attack on Flake’s record on women’s health and veterans’ issues — both attacks that have featured prominently in the Democrat’s campaign.

Carmona, a Vietnam War veteran, has launched ads touting his service and slamming Flake for what he says are his votes against veterans’ care; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently targeted Flake on women’s health in its first ad in the race.

Flake also spent time touting his ability to work across the aisle, a reflection that this race is no longer an easy win for Republicans — as was expected months before the campaign began — and the fact that Romney leads Obama, but by a smaller margin than in other red-leaning states.

"In the past four years, no Democrat or Republican has passed more floor amendments than I have. That can only come when you work well with the other side, when you have the temperament to sit down and work with people," he said.

Internal polls released by the campaigns on Wednesday showed each of their respective candidates with a lead. And the most recent independent poll gave Carmona a statistically insignificant lead — indicating the race is ripe for movement, a fact that was clearly not lost on either of the candidates at Wednesday's debate.