The three Republicans vying for Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's seat promoted their credentials as fiscal conservatives, praised the tea party movement and took swipes at the incumbent in a televised debate Tuesday night.
Joe DioGuardi, a former congressman from Westchester County, former Long Island lawmaker Bruce Blakeman and David Malpass, a former Bear Stearns chief economist, are competing for the GOP nomination in the Sept. 14 primary. The winner will face Gillibrand, who is far ahead in polls and fundraising, in the November general election.
The candidates spent much of the hour criticizing Washington for profligate spending and promising to rein it in, if elected. Blakeman boasted about cutting county spending. Malpass said a "massive upheaval" is needed in Washington and DioGuardi decried the federal debt.
"We still have Washington spending money we don't have," DioGuardi said during the hour-long debate that aired Tuesday night on YNN cable network stations across New York.
They also took aim at each other. Blakeman said Malpass was at Bear Stearns when it took bailout money, yet argued against aid for flood victims. Both Malpass and DioGuardi attacked Blakeman for a tax hike when he served in the Nassau County legislature.
But the debate also highlighted what they agreed on.
All three said military commanders should weigh in before a decision is made on the "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays in the military. They all thought Ronald Reagan was a great president. They support the death penalty. They each said the tea party is constructive political force. Malpass said he went to meetings of tea party groups across the state, DioGuardi said he was happy people were speaking up and Blakeman said, "I am a tea party person."
Blakeman differed from the other candidates in agreeing that creationism should be taught in public schools, saying it was part of a free exchange of ideas. He also said he "regrettably" tried an illegal drug 30 years ago, but would not elaborate after the debate.
On global warming, DioGuardi said he believed it, Blakeman said the jury was still out and Malpass said he didn't believe carbon dioxide created from human activity is warming the planet.
There were a number of swipes at Gillibrand. Malpass said she votes for too much spending, DioGuardi said she was in lockstep with President Barack Obama and Blakeman said the former upstate congresswoman made a "U-turn" on gun rights after she came to the Senate.
Asked by a questioner to say something nice about Gillibrand, Blakeman responded, "I think Kirsten Gillibrand is an attractive woman, I think she's bright, and I think she's probably a good mom herself."
Gillibrand's campaign responded to the debate quickly, saying none of the three Republicans are capable of serious solutions to create jobs and grow the economy.
"All three Republicans want to return to the failed economic policies of George Bush that benefit only the powerful,' campaign spokesman Glen Caplin said in a prepared statement.
Gillibrand was appointed last year to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who became secretary of state. Gillibrand is running for a special two-year Senate term that ends in 2012, when Clinton's term would have ended.
Though Gillibrand has been considered vulnerable to a challenge, high-profile Republicans like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki opted not to run for the seat, leaving the field to the trio of lesser-known GOP primary candidates.
Polls have shown Gillibrand with commanding leads. A Siena College poll released last week showed Gillibrand leading each of the three Republicans by at least 25 percentage points.
That poll showed DioGuardi with more support from Republicans than Malpass and Blakeman — though more than two-thirds of respondents had yet to make a choice. Analysts believe DioGuardi is benefiting from name recognition — both as a former congressman and the father of "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi.
DioGuardi mentioned the show in one of the debate's lighter moments. Asked if he knew who Justin Bieber is, he said "Is she on American Idol?"
Gillibrand also reported $7.2 million in campaign funds last month, more than double her three Republican competitors combined.
Gillibrand faces a Democratic primary challenge from New York City lawyer Gail Goode, who has little party support, name recognition or campaign cash.