MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold defended his vote for health care reform during a televised debate Friday, and accused Republican challenger Ron Johnson of wanting to replace the program with a system that puts insurance companies in control.
Johnson, who calls the health care law an assault on personal freedoms, countered that the nation's health care system was already the finest in the world, and needed only minor tweaks to become even better.
Feingold had been considered a lock to win a fourth term, but recent polls show him slightly trailing Johnson. The two met in Milwaukee for the first of three debates ahead of the Nov. 2 election, and health care reform proved to be one of the more contentious issues.
While most congressional Democrats who voted for the bill have downplayed their support, Feingold said he was happy to help pass it.
"The big thing is, we finally get control of the insurance companies," he said after the debate.
Johnson has often said the main reason he entered the race was to help repeal the law. He slightly modified his strategy Friday, saying the GOP shouldn't move to repeal until it has an alternative in hand.
"If the Republicans take over one of the houses of Congress, they start writing the replacement bills from day one so we can show the American people, 'this is what we intend to do,"' he said.
The new bills would start with tort reform, he added.
The businessman also said he would keep the provision that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions. After all, he said, his adult daughter was born with a serious heart condition, and even now her heart is backward.
"Every voter in Wisconsin can be sure that I'll protect people with pre-existing conditions, that they will be able to maintain coverage," he said.
When the debate turned to the economy, Feingold criticized Johnson for supporting trade agreements that the senator said would send jobs out of Wisconsin. He called his challenger a "manufacturer who would vote to send manufacturing jobs overseas."
Feingold also touted his maverick credentials, reminding voters that he was the only Democrat who voted against Wall Street reform -- he said it didn't go far enough -- and the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.
Johnson targeted Feingold for his support of the stimulus bill, which Johnson said drove the country deeper into debt without providing the promised jobs. He said Congress should have dealt with the failing economy by first ensuring that tax cuts for the wealthy passed under President George W. Bush not be allowed to expire in 2011 as planned.
"That would have created a great deal of confidence in the American economy," he said. "Businesses would have started investing and consumers would have started spending."
Johnson also repeated his assertion that global warming isn't a proven science and he played up his recent endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
Johnson said the nation should invest more in nuclear power and favors "responsible" oil drilling. Feingold said there would always be a need for oil and clean-burning coal, but said wind turbines would provide a valuable source of renewable energy.
Both candidates said they would eliminate earmarks.
Johnson said he would honor Social Security's commitments to the elderly and never mandate privatization. But he also said all options are on the table, which Feingold said showed that Johnson supports some form of privatization.
Feingold and Johnson square off in their next debate Monday in Wausau.