The contenders for Congressional District 2 wrangled about the federal government's role in education during a debate Tuesday in Tucson.

Democrat Ron Barber said Republican Martha McSally supports cutting grants for college students and education funding from the federal government, which he said would make electing her a disaster for public education in Arizona.

McSally accused Barber of distorting the truth, telling the audience at the University of Arizona's Grand Ballroom that she is passionate about education and committed to making college education more affordable.

The topic of the federal government's role in education got hot during Tuesday's one-hour debate, sponsored by Arizona Public Media and the Associated Students of the UA.

McSally, who has two master's degrees, said her career was built on public education and told the audience her mother was an educator. She said that in her previous job at the Marshall Center in Germany, she lectured about education being the backbone of developing societies. But she said the United States is failing in education, and the federal government needs to make sure people can get a college degree at affordable rates.

"We've got to keep the cost of college down," said McSally, a retired Air Force colonel. "We've got to make sure they have access to loans that are not going to bankrupt them. We've got to make sure the Pell grants are still available."

Barber pounced on McSally's answer, saying it's difficult to understand where McSally stands on higher education since she supports the Paul Ryan budget plan and has said she wants the federal government out of the education business. The Ryan budget would cut the number of Pell grants by 42 percent, he said. Getting the federal government out of public education would mean $3 billion less coming back annually to Arizona, he said.

"It would have a dreadful economic impact on our community," said Barber, who is the incumbent U.S. representative in Congressional District 8.

Barber said he already has voted for a bill to keep student interest rates from doubling, and his vote against repeal of the Affordable Care Act ensures that students can stay on their parents' health insurance until they are 26 years old.

"We need a greater investment in education, not less as my opponent proposes," Barber said.

McSally accused Barber of distorting the facts, clarifying that her remarks about getting the federal government out of education was in reference to primary education.

"No Child Left Behind is hamstringing our teachers and putting federal mandates on them for bureaucratic procedures that then have them teaching to the test," McSally said. "That's not what we need right now: the federal government trying to drive education locally."

She said she has problems with the Ryan budget and charged Barber with using that to scare people.

Barber then said it was "hard to keep up" because of her frequent changes in positions.

"Having extreme positions one day, and then shifting to moderate positions the next," Barber said. "I have been consistent in positions."

"This is just what's wrong with politics," she said in response - a phrase she used at least a half-dozen times in the debate.

"Distorting positions, taking them out of context and mudslinging and scare tactics," McSally said. "Let's stop with the distortions of my positions on things. It is clear that I am very strongly for education."

Though they both remained calm and civil throughout, Barber and McSally both took sharp jabs at each other.

McSally called Barber anti-business, saying she has endorsements from "anybody who cares about getting you a job." She said Barber is part of a Congress, and specifically the Democratic leadership of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that is failing the nation.

"They are more concerned with their next election instead of the next generation," she said.

Barber said McSally wants to privatize Social Security and make Medicare into a voucher system, and by repealing health-care overhaul put people with pre-existing conditions back at risk of losing their health insurance.

In closing statements, both vowed to fight for middle-class families and small businesses, and to protect benefit programs for senior citizens.

Barber said he'll fight for veterans and never vote to privatize Social Security. He said he is the only candidate who will protect women's rights to make their own health-care decisions.

"You can count on me to stand up for that right," Barber said. "My opponent has said when she submitted two questionnaires that she wouldn't even be OK with a woman making a choice for abortion even if she is victimized by rape or incest. That's wrong."

McSally didn't respond directly to Barber's last charge. But she did say earlier in the debate that the notion that she's against women's rights is folly, calling herself a "woman warrior" who has fought her entire life for women's rights and equality. She said she'll protect Social Security and Medicare by coming up with "thoughtful solutions" to ensure the programs remain solvent. She said her distinguished 26-year career in the Air Force shows she's the one to handle the serious challenges facing the country and community.

"Mr. Barber, you were elected to serve out Gabby Giffords' term, and I thank you for that service," said McSally, turning to look at Barber. "But it's time for us to move forward. We need someone who is going to fight. We need someone who is going to lead."

On StarNet: See more photos from the debate at

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or On Twitter @BradyMcCombs.