Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson and Democratic challenger Tammy Baldwin sparred over Medicare, health care reform and sanctions against Iran in a freewheeling second debate Thursday for Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat.
Polls show the race to be a dead heat, and both candidates tried to hammer home key themes of their campaigns at the debate on the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County in Wausau.
Baldwin hit Thompson on his career in the private sector since 2001 working for a high-powered Washington law firm, while Thompson said Baldwin had been an ineffective congresswoman the past 14 years and represented views on the far left of the Democratic Party.
The debate's open format, in which the candidates could interact directly with one another without interference from the moderator, led to several spirited exchanges with Baldwin and Thompson talking directly to one another and sometimes over the top of one another.
"Why don't you tell the truth?" Thompson said as they debated health care.
"I am telling the truth," Baldwin retorted.
At another point Thompson said to Baldwin: "If you want to interrupt me, Joe Biden, just give me a chance."
As it has been throughout the campaign, health care and Medicare took center stage.
Thompson defended comments he made at a tea party group's meeting in June in which he said: "Who better than me to come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?" His comments have been repeated in attack ads being run against him.
Thompson said he was talking about transforming Medicare to make sure it stays solvent for future generations but not ending it outright.
"I want to save it," Thompson said. "I want to make sure the seniors in America and in Wisconsin, in particular, are protected."
Baldwin was asked about comments she made, which are also being used in attack ads, about supporting a "government takeover of medicine."
"There is a role for the federal government," Baldwin said during the debate. She said she was committed to keeping Medicare in its current form, but less expensive through a variety of cost savings.
"It isn't just a program, it's a promise and one I vow to keep," Baldwin said.
Baldwin has not pushed for socialized medicine but has supported the single payer and public option, both of which go further than President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Baldwin and Thompson also forcefully disagreed on Iran.
Thompson had joined three Republican U.S. senators earlier Thursday who criticized Baldwin for voting four times between 2006 and 2011 against efforts to toughen sanctions against Iran. However, since Baldwin entered the Senate race, she has voted twice in favor of expanding sanctions.
Baldwin explained her votes against sanctions saying she hoped it would send a message to pro-democracy protesters that the U.S. was behind their efforts.
Thompson blasted Baldwin for accepting nearly $60,000 in campaign donations from the Council for a Livable World, which opposes Iranian sanctions. But he referred to the group during the debate as the Council for a Living Earth, and Baldwin said she didn't know what Thompson was talking about.
"I'll have to look at that," Baldwin said. "I've never heard of the Council for a Living Earth."
Baldwin said it was "shocking" that Thompson had up to $35,000 in investments in companies that do business with Iran. Baldwin's campaign identified five companies on Thompson's financial disclosure reports.
Thompson said when he learned of the investments earlier Thursday, he sold the holdings in two companies.
"I didn't know about the fact my stock broker had purchased two company's stocks," Thompson said. "I sold it. I sold it today."
He did not say what the companies were, and messages left by The Associated Press with his campaign for more details were not immediately returned.
Polls had showed Thompson leading the race all year, even before he won a four-way Republican primary in August, until September, when Baldwin pulled even or ahead. The most recent poll released Wednesday by the Marquette University Law School showed the race dead even.
The seat — which has been in Democratic hands since 1957 — is being vacated by the retiring Sen. Herb Kohl. It's viewed as a major pick-up opportunity for Republicans as they try to wrest control of the Senate away from Democrats.
Both sides have spent millions on television attack ads, with much of it coming from outside groups. The Center for Responsive Politics on Thursday said that only Virginia's Senate race has seen more outside spending.
Baldwin, 50, has represented the Madison area in Congress since 1999. Thompson, 70, was first elected to the state Legislature in 1966 and served as governor from 1987 until 2001. He also served four years as U.S. health secretary under then-President George W. Bush before leaving to work in the private sector, primarily for a powerful Washington law firm and a variety of health companies.
The third and final debate before the Nov. 6 election is scheduled for Oct. 26 in Milwaukee.