WATERVILLE – The three contenders for the U.S. Senate seat squared off in a pointed public debate Sunday night, sparring over the war in Iraq and other issues.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Falmouth Republican seeking a third term, spent much of the first half of a 90-minute debate at Colby College fending off criticisms of her initial support for the Iraq war from her two challengers, Democrat Jean Hay Bright of Dixmont and independent Bill Slavick of Portland.
“It was a mistake to go in, and we need to get out as soon as possible,” said Hay Bright, calling for the withdrawal of troops and U.S. corporations from Iraq. “We’ve lost this war.”
Snowe, who voted to authorize the war in 2002 and subsequently fund it, recently called for a change of course in Iraq, where sectarian violence has increased of late. During the debate, Snowe fired back at her challengers’ accusations that her recent statements amounted to a pre-election shift in her stance on the war.
“I have said that staying the course is neither an option nor a plan,” said Snowe, adding that she expressed her concerns to the administration after her visit to Iraq last spring. “We always have to readjust and reappraise our strategy, and obviously we can’t leave chaos behind.”
Slavick, who like Hay Bright has made Iraq a central issue in his campaign, said that the United States’ continued presence in the region is fueling civil war in Iraq, as well as anti-American sentiments.
“We have to address the causes for why we’re hated,” Slavick said in response to a question on stopping terrorism in the United States. “We have multiplied the terrorists’ initiative.”
Sunday’s event, which drew about 150 people to Cotter Union, was the first public debate in the contest with all three candidates. Later this week, the three will participate in two more debates, both of them televised.
Snowe, considered one of a shrinking number of moderate lawmakers on Capitol Hill, is a heavy favorite in the contest. A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed her with a 70 percent to 24 percent lead over Hay Bright.
Slavick was not included in the Rasmussen poll, and was almost not included in Sunday’s debate.
Organizers originally had concluded that Slavick, a retired college professor, didn’t have enough public support to meet the debate’s standards. However, Slavick later was included at the request of the other candidates.
The debate was hosted by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby and the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers.
During the debate, the three candidates also weighed in on a number of other issues, including how to deal with Iran and North Korea on the issue of nuclear weapons.
“Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy,” Hay Bright said, calling for bilateral talks with North Korea. She characterized that country’s recent nuclear test as “a way to get attention and get some status in the world community so we would deal with them as a peer.”
Snowe called the North Korean nuclear test a “destabilizing and deeply disturbing event.” She also urged diplomacy, calling for a return to six-party talks.
Slavick faulted the Bush administration for pre-empting diplomacy with North Korea and Iran by famously referring to those countries as part of the “axis of evil.”
“We made terrible mistakes not talking,” Slavick said. “Instead, we made threats.”
The three also discussed several other issues, including health care, torture and educational standards.
Judging by the crowd reaction, Slavick also had the most popular line of the night when asked why voters should trust government officials in light of recent scandals in Congress.
“I don’t think you should,” he said.
David Offer, the executive editor of the two central Maine newspapers, moderated the debate.