Leah Barkoukis
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Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg traded jabs during a debate held in Billings last night. Rehberg took the opportunity to again draw comparisons between the senator and Obama on issues such as taxes, health care and business regulation. President Obama is unpopular in the Big Sky Country where RCP’s average has Romney up 10.3 points.

At one point during the debate Rehberg questioned why Tester thought Obama should be re-elected. Tester’s response was defensive, illustrating where his voting record has differed from President Obama’s. However, he began by saying, “The point is, congressman, is you’re running against me. This is the race, okay? You’re not running against President Obama.”

Rehberg’s response echoed the tune of his campaign’s messaging that Tester has voted with Obama “95 percent of the time”: “I don’t need to morph you into Barack Obama. You did it to yourself.”

Tester on the other hand hit Rehberg for his relationship with lobbyists, taxpayer-funded trips to “luxury destinations” and for suing Billing’s fire department. Each accusation was met with a quick rebuttal by Rehberg. For example, when Tester brought up a statement the congressman once made about relying on lobbyists for information, Rehberg responded, “The difference is, I accept their information. You accept their cash."

On the issues:

Taxes: Rehberg called for elimination of the federal estate tax, which he calls the “death tax,” while Tester advocated making permanent the current estate tax in which the first $5 million of an individual’s estate or $10 million for a couple’s estate is exempt from taxes, with a 35 percent tax rate on estates over those values.

Tester said the current exemptions would apply to nearly every farmer and rancher in Montana and should be permanent.

“The death tax should be zero, “Rehberg said. “That gives certainty.”

Tester said he favored closing tax loopholes for big oil companies.

Rehberg said he opposes the kinds of tax changes advocated in the federal deficit reduction study, saying it would raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents a gallon and eliminate the mortgage interest rate deduction that homeowners can claim on the federal taxes.

At another point in the debate, Rehberg said he supports the enactment of a flat federal income tax, in which every taxpayer, regardless of income, pays the same tax rate.

Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare": Tester generally defended the 2010 federal health insurance reform act, while Rehberg vowed to repeal it

Federal stimulus: Rehberg attacked Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, while Tester supported it.

“The problem is it didn’t stimulate,” Rehberg said. “We could have lowered the corporate tax and lowered the payroll tax on employees and employers.”

Tester said the stimulus provided $500 million in tax cuts for Montanans, kept law enforcement and firefighters on the job and paid for construction of public works projects across the state that kept people employed.

“We were losing 800,000 jobs a month (nationally when Obama took over in 2009),” Tester said. “We were on the cusp of a financial meltdown."

He said the job losses flattened out and jobs are now increasing nationally.

Rehberg said, “We have to grow and create jobs. You don’t do it by piling on more debts.”

Trade bills: Tester, a farmer, was asked why he had opposed a number of trade agreements with foreign countries.

“The trade agreements have to be fair, not free,” he said. “We cannot allow other countries to dump their products on us.”

Rehberg said he favored some and opposed others, adding: “I didn’t stand with my party. I stood with Montanans.”

Tester countered: “President Obama wanted those trade agreements. Congressman Rehberg, you stood with President Obama.”

Role of government: Tester told Rehberg that it’s small businesses that create jobs, “not multimillionaires like yourself.”

“Belts are going to be tightened in a big way,” Tester said. “Folks making millions and millions of dollars ought to be contributing (more) to the coffers.”

“Feed the beast,” Rehberg said. “That’s all they want to do.”

Rep. Rehberg has a slight lead in Montana’s toss-up Senate race. The candidates will face-off in two more debates this month.

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Leah Barkoukis

Leah Barkoukis is the Assistant Editor at Townhall.com/Townhall Magazine.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography