PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Conservative Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers and Democratic ex-entertainer Clay Aiken on Monday each blamed the other's party for dysfunctional government, claimed that they had better ideas to solve the country's problems, and that their opponent would be little more than a tool for party bosses.
The two met in what may be their only debate before voters in central North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District vote on Nov. 4.
Ellmers, a two-term Republican and former registered nurse from Dunn, rode the tea-party wave that shook up Congress in 2010 as a symbol of opposition to President Barack Obama's federal health insurance overhaul and narrowly upset a seven-term Democrat. She allied herself with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and her website has described her as a rising star within the House GOP.
Aiken, a Democrat, is a former special education teacher who rose to fame on "American Idol" and recently gave up a pop singing career. He said Ellmers' unflinching backing of Republican congressional leaders is causing gridlock that prevents negotiated solutions to the country's problems. He said he has been frustrated by partisanship displayed by both parties.
House Democratic leader "Nancy Pelosi would not be my boss, unlike John Boehner would be your boss," said Aiken, who has never held public office.
Ellmers remarked that she had a plan to improve the sluggish "Aiken-Obama economy." She also blamed Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid for blocking what she said were good ideas advanced by her and her House colleagues. Those included cutting regulations on businesses and freeing up energy production, she said.
She twice dismissed Aiken as an entertainer who believed he "could just go in with a song and dance" and change the minds of budget-cutters looking at nearby Fort Bragg, and "pink slips are going to be torn up and thrown into the air and everyone is just going to rejoice."
"That isn't the way things work. Yes, there are funding cuts," Ellmers said.
Aiken responded that "the most embarrassing reality show right now is Congress." He derided Ellmers and other House Republicans for voting dozens of times to repeal Obama's signature health reform law rather than simply correcting flaws that have cropped up. For example, Aiken said that small businesses required to provide health insurance because they employ more than 50 full-time workers could have gotten some relief through an amendment that raised the number to 100 employees — but gridlock has blocked that change from happening, Aiken said.
"That's another symptom of this do-nothing Congress that would rather sit and grandstand than actually do something," Aiken said.
Aiken and Ellmers offered similarly moderate views on military spending, but differed on sending U.S. ground troops back to Iraq to counter the militant Islamic group ISIL: Ellmers said she could support it, but Aiken said he opposes it.
Each said the U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that could lead to same-sex marriages in North Carolina and three other Southern states was out of their hands. Ellmers said she believed in heterosexual unions; Aiken is openly gay.
On immigration, Aiken and Ellmers both said federal immigration laws should be changed to allow millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally to work and pay taxes in the open rather than living under the table. Aiken said deporting those immigrants would weaken the U.S. economy. Ellmers stopped short of never allowing those immigrants to become citizens.
"In time, why not go through the naturalization process?" Ellmers asked.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio .