Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes worked to persuade voters Thursday that he would be an independent voice for the middle class as a U.S. senator, while his GOP opponent, Kelly Ayotte, tried to tie him to wasteful spending under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The two faced off in a spirited debate in the race to capture retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg's seat.
Hodes stressed that Ayotte supports extending Bush-era tax cuts to include the wealthy, something he opposes. Ayotte said small business owners will be hurt if they don't receive the cuts.
Ayotte supports extending the tax cuts for all Americans, while Hodes said he wants to extend the cuts only for the middle class — those families earning less than $250,000 a year.
Ayotte has cast herself as a conservative Washington outsider who would cut spending. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Ayotte in a primary she narrowly won over another conservative who had support from local tea party activists.
Facing rising voter unrest with incumbents, Hodes argued that he is an independent thinker unafraid to go against Democratic leaders in Congress. He repeated Thursday that he has been there long enough to know what doesn't work and insisted no one "has their hooks in me." He reminded viewers he voted against a bailout for Wall Street against his party's wishes.
"I didn't want to see the CEOs of Wall Street rewarded," he said.
Hodes, who has consistently trailed in polls, went on the attack soon after the debate began.
Ayotte had barely finished saying that letting the tax cuts expire would hurt small businesses when Hodes asked how cutting taxes for millionaires would help. The tax cut for the wealthiest Americans will add $700 billion to the deficit, he said.
"We need to help the middle class," he said.
"I understand why you want more money to spend in Washington," Ayotte replied. "I would like to keep money in people's pockets here in New Hampshire."
Ayotte said she, too, isn't afraid to go against Republican leadership, pointing to her opposition to special funding requests by members of Congress known as earmarks.
"I think there were times when Republicans spent too much money as well," she said.
Ayotte criticized Hodes for not doing more to help the housing market; he fired back that she would repeal financial reforms intended to address failings in the mortgage industry.
Ayotte tried several times to link Hodes to Pelosi — a tactic many Republicans are employing in arguing that House Democrats passed wasteful spending and unwanted health care reforms.
Hodes said Republicans under former President George W. Bush dug the economic hole the nation is in — not Democrats — and electing Ayotte would mean returning to the same policies that created the economic disaster.
They differed on how to shore up Social Security. Hodes opposed making changes in benefits or raising the retirement age. Ayotte opposed changes for retirees or people near retirement age, but said everything must be open for discussion for younger workers.
Hodes accused her of supporting privatizing the system.
"You know that is a bunch of baloney," Ayotte shot back.
Hodes asked Ayotte what she'd say to Gail O'Brien of Keene sitting in the audience about Ayotte's support to repeal health care reforms. O'Brien, 52, was uninsured and facing expensive cancer treatments but now has coverage because of the reform law. She was able to get coverage under a provision providing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
"We want to make sure people have coverage. We don't need that from Washington. There can be state solutions," Ayotte said.
Hodes vacated his 2nd District seat after two terms to run for the U.S. Senate. Ayotte, the state's former attorney general, stepped down in July 2009 to run.
Libertarian Ken Blevens and independent Chris Booth also are on the ballot but were not invited to debate.