Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez clashed Thursday with his Republican challenger, Joseph Kyrillos, in a debate that featured the most pointed remarks of what has been a generally congenial race.
Menendez chastised Kyrillos, a state senator from Monmouth County, for blaming New Jersey's economic problems on the federal government. New Jersey's unemployment rate hit 9.9 percent in August; the national average was 8.1 percent.
"I find it interesting that my opponent would like to cast all the national ills on my doorstep, but he has been in Trenton for 24 years," Menendez said at Montclair State University, where the hour-long debate was held and broadcast live on NJTV.
Kyrillos, a close Republican ally of Gov. Christie, said the state could not undo mistakes made at the national level. He pitched himself as the "change" candidate, arguing that reelecting Menendez would mean six more years of bad policy.
"There's nothing wrong with our New Jersey economy that a roaring national economy wouldn't fix," he said.
The candidates also traded barbs over abortion, taxes, and foreign policy during the first of three scheduled debates.
New Jersey has not elected a Republican senator since 1972. Menendez, 58, of Hudson County, leads in the polls and in the money race, outraising his opponent 5-1 according to the last federal campaign filings, in July.
In recent weeks, Kyrillos, 52, has sought to woo women and independent voters.
He described his stance on abortion as "restricted . . . pro-choice" at a campaign event last month in Hoboken. Kyrillos said he supported parental-notification laws for minors seeking abortions, a waiting period, and a ban on third-trimester abortions.
Menendez, who supports abortion rights, said Kyrillos was trying to have it both ways.
"We cannot afford, as it relates to a woman's right to choose, to be multiple choice," he said.
Kyrillos said he had never wavered from his stance.
"I've voted for and advocated for some pro-life initiatives," he said. "I've always felt that way."
On taxes, Menendez said he supported continuing the Bush income tax cuts for those with incomes below $200,000 ($250,000 for a couple).
Kyrillos said all the cuts should be extended. "Do we really want to raise taxes now?" he asked Menendez.
Kyrillos has said he would be willing to close corporate tax loopholes, but has repeatedly refused, in interviews and during the debate, to specify which ones. He wants to cut federal income taxes for all by 20 percent over time and lower the corporate tax rate. Economic growth will pay for the cuts, he said.
That math doesn't work, Menendez retorted.
"If we are going to lower tax rates, that means less revenue coming into the Treasury, so it has to come from somewhere," Menendez said. He proposes cutting $24 billion in tax breaks to oil companies and $6 billion in ethanol subsidies to offset the cost of the lower-income tax cuts.
Menendez defended sanctions on Iran that he helped write, calling them an "economic noose" that is stemming that country's nuclear ambitions.
Kyrillos shot back that the sanctions are "too little, too late." A nuclear Iran is "the greatest threat to our country and the world," he said.
Menendez was appointed in 2006 to fill the remaining Senate term of Jon S. Corzine, who had been elected governor the previous fall. In 2002, Menendez won a bruising battle against State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., now the Republican minority leader in the state Senate.
Kyrillos led Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential primary campaign in New Jersey.
Two more debates are scheduled for broadcast in the race for U.S. Senate in New Jersey:
Wednesday at 7 p.m. on New Jersey 101.5 FM.
Oct. 14 on Univision.
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