When it came time for Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly to ask each other a question during Wednesday's Congressional District 8 debate hosted by the Arizona Daily Star, they dived into familiar territory.
As they've done the entire campaign, the two went at each other about their positions on Social Security, Medicare and health-care reform.
Barber asked Kelly to explain his change in position on Social Security and Medicare, which Kelly said he wanted to phase out and privatize during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for Congress. Kelly said his position hasn't changed - he said he's always advocated for protecting benefits for seniors while offering options for future generations - and that his words had been taken out of context.
Kelly asked Barber whom he planned to vote for in the upcoming presidential election, in an obvious attempt to once again link Barber to President Obama, his health-care reform and other Democratic policies. Barber didn't answer, saying it's his vote and that he's focused on beating Kelly.
The questions reflected the ongoing themes of this race that have dominated TV ads, social media and mailers.
Democrats have spent the campaign slamming Kelly for what they call his flip-flop on Social Security and Medicare, and calling his commitment to protecting the programs disingenuous. Republicans have spent the past few months linking Barber to the Democrat-backed health-care reform and other policies they say will negatively affect seniors.
They did address several other issues during the 75-minute debate - including border security, the proposed Rosemont Mine and gun laws - before a packed house of 450 people at the Tucson Jewish Community Center auditorium. (See quotes at left).
Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis, a 72-year-old retired substitute teacher, also participated. He frequently jabbed at Barber and stole the spotlight midway through the event when he proposed using camels to help with border security rather than horses.
The candidates answered a mix of questions submitted by readers and Arizona Daily Star staff. Voters will choose among the three rivals in the June 12 special election to complete the congressional term of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Early ballots went out a week ago.
In a question to Kelly, Barber, a 66-year-old former district director for Giffords, brought up the recent removal from Kelly's website of an item calling for younger workers to have an option of putting a portion of their Social Security contribution into personal retirement accounts, suggesting it "mysteriously disappeared."
"You are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters," Barber said. "Can you explain the change in your positions?"
Kelly, a 30-year-old project manager in his family's business, Don Kelly Construction, said the website was changed in response to TV attack ads that took his past comments out of context.
"The commercial is designed for one thing - to scare the people currently on the system into believing a lie," Kelly said. "I'm out to protect seniors, but I'm also out to give choices to future generations."
He said choices mean asking people if they want a government system or a personal account. "In this country, we believe in choices," he said.
Barber said it would be great if Kelly would "man up" and said he's changed his position rather than "trying to fool people with double talk."
When it came time for Kelly to ask a question, he asked Barber who he is going to vote for in November's presidential election.
"My vote is my vote, Mr. Kelly, as yours is to you," Barber said. "And I will not be talking about other elections. I'm focused on beating you."
Kelly then took the opportunity to slam Barber for not taking a position on "Obamacare," which he called the most "ominous bill this nation has ever seen." Previously in the debate, Kelly called out Barber, saying he flip-flopped on his position on "Obamacare."
Kelly told the audience that Barber's speech to a pro-health-care-reform crowd captured in a 2009 video shows that his comments this campaign about not having a position on the bill and not having read it are disingenuous.
Barber and Kelly hit on the same issues again in their closing remarks.
Barber told the audience that he has enough experience, the right policies to protect middle-class Americans, seniors and veterans, and has earned the community's trust over his 40-year career.
"Mr. Kelly, I'm really afraid of the extreme policies that you would bring to play," Barber said. "Trust is earned, and when you flip-flop around and change your positions, that doesn't earn trust."
Kelly shot back during his closing remarks.
"I'll tell you what I'm afraid of - I'm afraid of President Obama's job-killing policies," Kelly said. "Who is going to go back there and stand up against those policies?"
Kelly later added: "We will stand up and we will tell Washington: Just leave us alone because we choose freedom."
Wednesday's debate was the final candidate forum before the June 12 special election, and the only one in which voters had a chance to see Barber, Kelly and Manolakis square off live.
On StarNet: Read a transcript of the chat that took place during Wednesday's CD8 debate at live.azstarnet.com
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4213.