The first debate between Democratic North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis brought uncomfortable moments for each but also the chance to present positive images to voters.
Hagan had to explain during Wednesday night's televised debate why state residents saw their policies canceled under the federal health care overhaul for which she voted and had said would let consumers keep their plans. And as Tillis defended the GOP legislature's education budgets against accusations that the cuts are hurting classroom instruction, he said little when Hagan pointed out Tillis didn't support expanding Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of people.
Tillis "has different priorities, the wrong priorities," Hagan said at the University of North Carolina Television studios. "At every opportunity, he has fought for policies that are taking our state backwards."
But it's Hagan who is taking the country in the wrong direction by agreeing to raise the national debt another $7 trillion, according to Tillis, and by too often supporting President Barack Obama's policies such as the health care law.
"Kay Hagan has failed the people of North Carolina by promising something she can't deliver," Tillis said.
The hour-long debate marked the first major post-Labor Day event of a national struggle between the political parties for Senate control. Republicans must gain six seats to win the Senate majority and have long listed North Carolina as a top target. Hagan and Tillis stood 10 feet apart at identical podiums as they exchanged accusations central to a race that public opinion polls rate a toss-up.
Tillis recalled Hagan's comments from her successful 2008 campaign, when she criticized GOP incumbent Elizabeth Dole for having voted 92 percent of the time with then-President George W. Bush. And yet, he said, Hagan has sided with Obama 95 percent.
"By Kay's own standard, she'd failed the people of North Carolina," said Tillis, who often referred to the senator only by her first name.
Hagan, 61, said repeatedly she had been named the most moderate member of the Senate, and cited examples of legislation she had helped passed in her first term, including help for the victims of past water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
"Speaker Tillis, you don't understand my record in Congress," she said. "I have gotten things done." She also tried to separate herself from Obama, noting she supports building the Keystone XL pipeline and has opposed trade deals sought by the administration.
"I have stood up to the president and my party when it's right for North Carolina," she said.
Hagan accused Tillis of cutting education by $500 million and giving tax breaks to wealthy individuals while leading the North Carolina House.
Tillis, 54, countered by highlighting the average 7 percent pay increase for teachers approved by the General Assembly this year, one of the largest in years. He also said that Hagan, while a budget-writer in the state Senate during the last decade, allowed a temporary sales tax increase to become permanent. That increase was eliminated when Tillis and other Republicans took over the legislature.
"When I went to Raleigh, I fulfilled my promises," Tillis said.
On international issues, both Hagan and Tillis said they were open to taking military action against Islamic State militants after a second American journalist was beheaded in two weeks. Both candidates seemed to be reaching out to female voters in response to a question from CBS anchor Norah O'Donnell about a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing closely held companies to refuse to offer contraceptive coverage to employees on religious objections.
Hagan opposed the ruling and said Tillis' support for the decision shows that he "just doesn't understand the needs of women."
Tillis, who won the endorsement of the group National Right to Life before his May primary, said efforts should be made to make contraception more widely available over the counter to increase access. Dozens of abortion rights and anti-abortion advocates rallied near the debate site Wednesday evening.
The next debate is set for Oct. 7. A third debate has been agreed to but details haven't been finalized. Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh didn't participate in Wednesday's debate because he didn't meet polling requirements, according to the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, the debate sponsor.