Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican rival Joe DioGuardi clashed over health care, terror trials and each other's trustworthiness in their first campaign debate Friday.
Gillibrand, a former upstate New York House member appointed to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton when she became secretary of state, sought to demonstrate she had been an effective voice in the Senate during her brief tenure there. Polls show her leading DioGuardi but also indicate she is still not well known to many voters statewide.
DioGuardi, a former House member from the New York City suburbs, played up his credentials during the hourlong forum as an accountant who would "take a sharp pencil to Washington" to address federal spending, taxes and debt.
Gillibrand was pressed on why she had changed her position on guns and other issues when she went to the Senate. Once a strong supporter of gun rights, she has since worked to support some gun control measures.
Gillibrand said she had worked on the issue with urban leaders like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and was focused on keeping illegal guns out of cities and away from gangs, and to reduce gun trafficking.
"There's no question my record has been clear. I have been fighting for New Yorkers, fighting for community safety," Gillibrand said, adding that she keeps two guns stored in her house.
DioGuardi said Gillibrand's shift on the matter demonstrated political expediency, and that voters deserved a lawmaker who was consistent on key issues.
"I haven't changed my views on anything in my whole life," he said.
DioGuardi pledged to repeal the landmark health care law passed last year, which Gillibrand supported. He also called for the extension of former President George W. Bush's tax cuts, which are set to expire early next year.
Gillibrand said she would support an extension for those who earn under $250,000, but not for top earners.
On Afghanistan, Gillibrand said she supported President Barack Obama's strategy to boost troop levels while setting a date to exit. DioGuardi said the strategy was flawed and Obama was repeating many of the same mistakes Bush made in Iraq.
"Why would he take that war and escalate it?" DioGuardi asked, calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai a "crook."
Both candidates were asked about past business practices. DioGuardi was asked about his relationship with a company called Medical Capital Holdings, which federal investigators believe ran a $1.7 billion Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors. DioGuardi said he had been a consultant to one of the company's subsidiaries and had no involvement with anything illegal. "This is pure fabrication," he said.
Gillibrand was pressed on past legal work she had done for tobacco giant Philip Morris, including reported efforts to help the company hide evidence that nicotine causes cancer.
Gillibrand said she had little control over the cases she was assigned as a young law firm associate and that she had consistently voted against tobacco interests in Congress.
"I voted to raise taxes on tobacco because it's one of the best ways to make sure children don't smoke," she said
The candidates agreed on a few points. Both said Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, should not be tried in New York as the Justice Department had proposed. But Gillibrand said it was appropriate to try him in civilian court, while DioGuardi favored a military tribunal.
Asked if she disagreed with anything Obama had done as president, Gillibrand said he should not have instructed the Justice Department to appeal a decision by a federal judge invalidating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy preventing gays from serving openly.
DioGuardi was asked whether Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who has acknowledged forwarding pornographic and racist e-mails and who this week criticized homosexuality, was a good representative of the Republican Party and the tea party movement.
DioGuardi said it was unfair that he should be held accountable for something Paladino had said. "He has to make his case to the people," DioGuardi said.