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GOP Senate candidates keep it civil during TV debate

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Leila Navidi

Republican U.S. Senate candidates, from left, Sharron Angle, John Chachas, Chad Christensen, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, during a debate on “Face to Face with Jon Ralston” at the KVBC studios in Las Vegas Tuesday, May 18, 2010.

Updated Tuesday, May 18, 2010 | 6:54 p.m.

The Big Debate - Part 1

The Big Debate - Part 1, Seg. 2

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  • The Big Debate - Part 1, Seg. 1

Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Debate

Sharron Angle, from left, John Chachas and Chad Christensen look on as Danny Tarkanian speaks during a debate among the Republican  U.S. Senate candidates on Launch slideshow »

Sun Coverage

Perhaps they were obeying Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” — that Republicans shall not speak ill of another Republican — but for the most part, the five leading Republican Senate candidates kept it civil Tuesday during a debate on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston.”

This could be interpreted as a sign that the party will swiftly unite after the June 8 primary so the winner will be well positioned to take on Sen. Harry Reid in November.

Or, it could be a sign that these candidates don’t have the taste for political combat that will be required to take on the well-funded Reid, whose henchmen are happily engaged.

That would be worrying for Republicans.

The first of a two-part debate aired Tuesday night and concludes at 6:30 p.m. today on KVBC-TV, Channel 3.

Ralston began by hunting for vulnerabilities and then challenging each candidate on them.

Sharron Angle is the former state assemblywoman who was a Tea Party activist before there was a name for such a thing. Ralston asked her about recent whispers that an Angle legislative proposal to explore a rehab program of massages and sweatboxes for Nevada prisons was a strange foray into Scientology.

“This program had a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent,” she replied. “They aren’t massages ... it was more of a karate chop. The sauna was a sweatbox. When you’re in there with 30 guys it’s not exactly a sauna.” The program is being used successfully in New Mexico, she said.

As Ralston noted, Angle seems to be enjoying herself the most during this campaign, which is in keeping with her history as happy conservative brawler.

John Chachas, a wealthy Wall Street investment banker who has returned to his native Nevada to run for Senate, has distinguished himself with his Ivy League education and Wall Street savvy. He was asked how he would specifically cut spending.

Chachas said he would freeze Social Security and tell department heads, including at the Pentagon, to craft budgets that would return spending to 2005 levels. It was a courageous answer, though one that would open him to attacks in a general election campaign.

Assemblyman Chad Christensen was asked why he keeps saying he defeated an income tax in 2003 when no such tax was proposed.

“To say I defeated the taxes would be like saying Tom Brady won the Super Bowl. I was the deciding vote,” he said.

When challenged and reminded it wasn’t an income tax, he replied, “It was a gross receipts tax, which is a fancy name for a corporate income tax.” Though generally corporate income taxes are levies on profits, not gross receipts.

“I had the backbone,” Christensen said.

Sue Lowden, former Miss New Jersey, newscaster, state senator and Republican Party chairwoman, is the front-runner, but she has been tripped up in recent weeks after saying that bartering, or trading goods and services, for health care is a viable solution to the country’s health care woes. She says in a recent TV ad that her remarks — in which she said past generations would bring a chicken to the doctor — were taken out of context.

Ralston challenged her on the statement, and her answer showed her continued vulnerability on the issue, as her response was not exactly crisp.

“The question is about the chicken? Is that the question?” she began. “You know to take one little sentence out of a whole hour interview is taking it out of context.”

She continued: “You’ve been to Mesquite. And you know how rural it is. That’s how this all started, in little rural Mesquite. And we were talking about the health care plan and were talking about how unpopular Harry Reid’s health care plan was in Mesquite. One-hour town-hall meeting with folks out there. Of course, I’m being videotaped everywhere. Followed everywhere by a Harry Reid person. They videotaped that town hall, and I guess they thought it had some legs, no pun intended.”

Lowden can pull off this kind of rambling non sequitur, as she has an appealing smile and telegenic presence.

Ralston pushed back: “But you gave it legs.”

Finally, Lowden found her answer: “Here we are — second-highest unemployment, first in foreclosures, deficit spending, and Harry Reid wants to talk about chickens. He wants to change the subject.”

Ralston asked Danny Tarkanian, the former UNLV basketball star who has run twice for office without success, about his own recent advertising, in which he points out that Lowden gave Reid money earlier in the senator’s career, and then notes her family’s wealth, as if her contributions to Reid somehow played a role in her financial success. It’s a specious attack, and Tarkanian struggled to defend it.

“The ad is to show Sue Lowden has donated five times, a thousand times, voted for and supported Harry Reid. She helped get Harry Reid get into office. Now we have all these problems created by Harry Reid. She has been a part of his rise to power. With that rise to power she has become a millionaire.”

Tarkanian cited a letter from Reid to Missouri gaming regulators on behalf of Lowden.

Lowden interjected, looking amused at her opening: “It was Illinois, by the way. I know it’s confusing. Illinois and Missouri. They’re so close.”

The two Republicans, who are the closest in most polls and sat next to each other during the debate, went back and forth several times, creating moments that could match any estranged Thanksgiving family dinner for awkwardness.

In the end, all the candidates held their own. Republicans watching the debate can be happy with this much: Whoever wins will likely do just fine on a stage with Reid.

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