PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Republican Sen. Susan Collins on Wednesday touted her willingness to work to bring both political parties together while Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows argued that sending her back to Washington could lead to a GOP majority in the Senate and even more partisan gridlock.
The senator, who's seeking a fourth term, squared off with Bellows in a debate in which they clashed on universal health care, the best way to boost the economy, how much to increase the minimum wage, and the war on terrorism.
At one point, Collins suggested that the Democrat had plenty of ideas for expanding government programs at the expense of taxpayers who'd have to shoulder the cost.
"You seem to be telling the people of Maine that your approach will be to ask the taxpayers to foot the bill as the federal government tries to spend its way out of problems," Collins said during the debate at Husson University in Bangor.
Bellows retorted that she has a plan for paying for her programs and told Collins: "Don't say that this Congress under your leadership has been fiscally responsible."
Polls show Collins has a 20-plus-point lead over Bellows, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. But Bellows hasn't shied away from going on the offensive.
Bellows accused Collins of voting repeatedly to send troops in harm's way in wars that have only added to the threat of terrorism instead of eradicating it. "We're continuing on this path to overseas wars that we can't afford that makes us less safe," she said.
On the economy, Bellows said the state's infrastructure and broadband Internet needs to be beefed up, while Collins said there needs to be training to ensure that the available workers have skills that match with growing industries in the state.
Collins, 61, hasn't made it easy for Bellows, winning early endorsements from national groups that might have endorsed the Democrat: the League of Conservation Voters, a major environmental group, and the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group.
But the 39-year-old Bellows isn't giving up. She walked 350 miles to lift her profile and received help from horror writer Stephen King, who's featured in a TV ad.
Collins, the last GOP moderate from New England in the Senate, said she wants to continue in the tradition of "civil, honest debate" and "progress based on bipartisan compromise."
"When government shut down last year, I put together a coalition of seven Republicans, six Democrats and (independent) Angus King and we hammered out a compromise that led to the reopening of government. That's how government can and should work," she said.
Bellows saw it differently, saying she fears a GOP majority in the Senate. "A vote for Susan is a vote for Republican control in Washington," she said.
The debate Wednesday night was televised by Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Another debate is scheduled for Thursday night, and two more debates are slated for next week.