MANCHESTER, N.H. – In a televised debate Monday night, Democrat Martha Fuller Clark zeroed in on what she has clearly targeted as Republican Jeb Bradley's weak spot: privatizing Social Security.
Clark, who trails Bradley in recent polls, asked him three times, about his apparent indecision on allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.
Clark said Bradley responded to a candidate survey that he was undecided, but signed a pledge a few weeks ago promising not to support privatizing any part of Social Security.
"You have been dancing all over the place on this issue," Clark charged. "I know you were once a magician, but this magic trick won't work for our seniors."
Bradley responded that he had not waffled on the issue.
"I have clearly indicated I'm not in favor of privatization," he said.
When asked again, he attacked back, charging that she supported a state income tax that would have taxed Social Security payments and pension income. Clark -- who voted for an income tax -- denied the plan she supported would have taxed the retirement payments.
Bradley spent much of the debate trying to paint Clark as "a tax-and-spend liberal," as he described her in a previous debate. He focused on Clark's vote for a state income tax, and challenged her once to say which part of President Bush's tax cut plan she opposed.
"Do you oppose eliminating the marriage penalty, repealing the death penalty? Are you opposed to increasing the child tax credit?" he asked.
Clark responded first by asking him again about his position on Social Security, and then said she supported the parts of the Bush tax cut he mentioned but wanted to make cuts that would benefit the middle class, including a tax deduction for family health insurance, deductions for the cost of some college tuition.
A panelist asked Bradley about Clark attack ads that the state Republican Party is running in New Hampshire, including an ad showing Clark walking down the street with a narrator saying, "Here comes Martha." Some see as an attack on Clark's appearance.
Bradley said he had no influence over the ads the party runs, and said his own campaign's ads have focused on his record.
Clark, however, said Bradley had the power to stop the ads and that she had asked the Democratic Party to stop running attack ads aimed at Bradley.
"If he has no influence over his own party in New Hampshire, how can he stand up to party interests in Washington?" Clark asked.
Clark, from Portsmouth, and Bradley, from Wolfeboro, have both been state representatives for 12 years.
They have similar positions on many issues. Both support a woman's right to have an abortion and the resolution passed by Congress granting President Bush authority to attack Iraq.
Bradley has been active on environmental issues in the House, although several environmental groups have endorsed Clark. Bradley also is more liberal on some social issues -- supporting adoption by gays, for example.
The two differ on state tax policies. Clark has supported a state income tax while Bradley prefers sticking with a state property tax to pay for public education. To supplement the property tax, Bradley also supported increased business taxes and voted to continue the state inheritance tax.
Clark was the Democratic nominee two years ago but failed to unseat Rep. John Sununu. Sununu is giving up the seat to challenge Gov. Jeanne Shaheen for the U.S. Senate.
Portsmouth investment adviser Dan Belforti, who was not at the debate, is the Libertarian Party nominee.
The debate was sponsored by WMUR-TV and The Union Leader and broadcast live. Televised debates will be held between 2nd District candidates Tuesday; gubernatorial candidates on Thursday; and U.S. Senate candidates on Friday.