Will a candidate's position on the health care debate influence your vote in the May primary in North Carolina or the June primary in South Carolina?
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A former state senator seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate gave the strongest verbal jabs at Republican incumbent Richard Burr during the Democrats' lone televised debate Wednesday, while taking the strongest barbs in return from opponents.
Cal Cunningham of Lexington, one of five Democrats participating in the debate, held up a legal pad to the camera with the number "18" on it -- a reference, he said, to the number of times Burr voted while in Congress to send U.S. jobs overseas through trade deals and tax breaks.
"I will hold Richard Burr accountable in this campaign," Cunningham said. "He's been part of the problem in Washington. I will be part of the solution."
But Chapel Hill attorney Ken Lewis and Gastonia schoolteacher Ann Worthy criticized Cunningham, particularly for his views on drilling for oil and natural gas off the North Carolina coast and his work on the state's banking commission.
"I have consistently opposed offshore drilling," Lewis said during the 90-minute debate on the eve of the start of the early voting period for the May 4 primary. "I'll say that my opponent, Mr. Cunningham, was for offshore drilling before he was against it. That is not leadership. That's not what we need in the United States Senate."
Lewis cited an interview Cunningham had with The Associated Press last week in which he said he would now vote against any drilling but may consider it as part of a broader energy plan.
Cunningham responded by saying: "I have consistently said that offshore drilling in North Carolina is not part of the answer."
The forum, which aired in at least two television markets and was streamed on several media Web sites, gave the Democrats their best chance to speak to a broad audience after participating in a dozen smaller forums before partisan crowds during the campaign.
Attorney Marcus Williams of Lumberton and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall also touted their experience -- Williams in the legal and economic development field and Marshall as a former state senator and the state's chief securities regulator -- as the key reasons why they should be the party's nominee.
"I've built my whole career on problem solving and exceeding expectations," said Marshall, pointing to efforts to regulate Wall Street and the influence of money in lobbying in North Carolina. "Those are exactly the same skills we need for Washington."
A sixth Democratic candidate, Susan Harris of Old Fort, didn't respond to the debate invitation from WNCN-TV and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.
Lewis also said that Cunningham was silent on the North Carolina Banking Commission he served on when the panel sought bonuses for its employees in early 2009. Cunningham said after the debate he never voted for the bonuses because he was already off a commission conference call when they were discussed and weren't on the meeting's agenda. The commission ultimately didn't give out the bonuses.
The candidates agreed largely on most of the major issues, including their support for the health care overhaul approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last month. Cunningham said Burr gives "the wrong answer" to the public when he talks about wanting to repeal the health care law.
The five candidates agree getting people back to work was the first order of business if they succeeded Burr in part by providing tax breaks and loosening credit for small businesses.
On the war in Afghanistan, Marshall reiterated her opposition to the troop surge, saying terrorists don't stay within one country's borders.
Cunningham, an Iraq war veteran, and Lewis said they supported Obama's decision, while Williams said that while he opposes the surge he was more confident in Obama's leadership and "might as well as give him a chance" on this issue and wants to bring troops home in an expeditious manner.
The five candidates lamented the gridlock on Capitol Hill and what they called a broken Senate. Marshall criticized Burr for participating in GOP parliamentary maneuvers to slow down the health care bill. Worthy said her lack of legal expertise or previous candidacy would help her get more things done.
"If the lawyers and the politicians could get the job done, they would have done it already," she said.