WASHINGTON -- Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said he didn't vote for a $716 billion cut to Medicare that he voted for. Democrat Patrick Murphy split from his party on where to draw the line on extending the Bush tax cuts. And neither apologized for fueling what has become one of the ugliest campaigns in the country.
After weeks of increasingly vitriolic ads, West and Murphy sat down on Friday night for their only formal debate in a race to represent Florida's 18th Congressional District. There weren't many fireworks during the hour-long exchange -- West interrupted Murphy a few times, which Murphy pushed back on -- but there seemed a palpable tension in the room the entire time.
Right out of the gate, West, a Tea Party favorite, was pressed on his reputation for stirring controversy. The moderator ticked off some of West's past comments -- he called members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus "communists," said Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Democrats and said liberal women's groups were "neutering" American men -- and asked if his critics are correct that those remarks make him an ineffective congressman.
West shrugged it off and said people should be talking about differing political ideologies.
"We have to talk about progressivism and the history of progressivism and where it came from. I think it's really easy to talk about communism, Marxism, socialism and also modern-day statism," West said. "I thought we lived in America, where there was freedom of speech and freedom of expression? I'm not going to be afraid of people just because they get upset."
Murphy, a political newcomer whose campaign message is built around the claim that West is too extreme, said the freshman lawmaker is no example of someone who can work across the aisle to get things done in Congress.
"When you're spending your time calling people communists or apparently Nazis and Marxists, that's no way to get things done," Murphy said. "At the end of the day, we've got to find compromise and make the tough decisions in our country right now."
Their race has become one of the most closely watched in the nation, in part because of the colossal amounts of money flowing into the campaigns and in part because polls have shown varying results. The district, newly drawn in 2010, is the biggest swing district in a key swing state.
Friday's debate touched on a range of policy issues, including Medicare, deficit reduction, tax cuts, job creation, abortion and gay marriage. Both candidates laid out their positions on each front, which largely mirrored their party's message. There were moments, though, where West's voting record was put under the microscope.
One question honed in on the fact that the Affordable Care Act and the House Republican budget both rely on a $716 billion cut to Medicare. West was asked how he can criticize that cut under the health care law, but support it in the GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the Republican vice presidential nominee. West falsely said he never supported that cut.
"I have not voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare," West said.
But West did vote for the GOP budget, twice, along with all nearly all other House Republicans. Murphy called him out on it, which drew several interruptions from West as he spoke.
"Congressman, you're not being honest with the voters. When you voted for the Ryan plan, you voted to take this $716 billion, so -- excuse me -- you said in one of your commercials that I voted to remove $716 billion," Murphy said.
"No, you supported it," West interrupted.
"Congressman, no, it says 'voted,'" Murphy said of West's commercial. "The fact is I've never been in Congress, I've never made this vote. So let's be clear here."
When the issue of abortion came up, Murphy, who is pro-abortion rights, laid into West for supporting bills that would have defunded Planned Parenthood, given full legal rights to fertilized eggs and used the term "forcible rape" to determine whether a woman would qualify for federal funds for an abortion.
West, who appeared surprised by Murphy's charges, maintained that he has "always said" that he opposes abortion, but supports exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. West's words didn't exactly match his voting record, though. As he spoke, Murphy muttered, "You're wrong."
In an awkward moment, West appeared to try to call out Murphy, an accountant, for not being certified or registered in Florida.
"You're kind of misleading people as far as your credentials," West said. "That's a big concern that I have, we have to be truthful with people and let them know of our qualifications."
Murphy, who looked perplexed, said he is a CPA in Colorado and has never made that a secret. West tried to jump in as he explained.
"I'm an active member -- excuse me – I am an active member of the Florida Institute of CPAs, and an active member of the American Institute of CPAs," Murphy said. "They both endorsed my candidacy."
Other notable moments included West saying the Energy Department hasn't lived up to its intent, pinning sequestration on President Barack Obama, even though West voted for it in the Budget Control Act, and suggesting that Planned Parenthood funds be redirected to restoring the Everglades. Murphy, meanwhile, said he disagreed with his party that the Bush tax cuts should expire for those who earn more than $250,000.
"I would draw the line at $1 million," Murphy said. "That's because of my background as a small business owner, because a lot of small businesses ... want to reinvest that money."
In the end, neither West nor Murphy was willing to say they were sorry for running nasty ads against each other. Those ads have included West hammering Murphy over a drunken college arrest and Murphy retaliating by hitting West's military record.
"I don't know what nastiness we're talking about," West said.
"All of our ads are accurate," Murphy said of his campaign.
And with that, the debate ended as Murphy and West shook hands with the moderators -- but not with each other, apparently -- and walked off.
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