PHOENIX - Democrat Richard Carmona said Wednesday he would not have supported the federal Affordable Care Act as pushed through by President Obama.

In the first debate between the three candidates for U.S. Senate, Carmona made several attempts to distance himself from Obama administration positions. Carmona also said he would extend the Bush-era tax cuts across the board - again, contrary to the president's wishes - and specifically said he is not defending the record of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

At the same time, Republican contender Jeff Flake sought to convince viewers of the televised debate that a vote for Carmona is a vote for a president whose popularity in Republican-dominated Arizona is limited, calling him "an echo of the Obama administration."

The posturing continued even after the debate at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, when Flake pointed out Carmona had to leave to attend a rally at Arizona State University with former President Bill Clinton. Flake said that shows Carmona is just another Democrat.

Carmona rejected the idea the former president motivates only Democrats.

"Republicans are standing up and saying what a great guy he is with his Clinton initiative" which brings together global and business leaders to find solutions to the world's problems. "We have a world leader that's coming, recognizes my leadership ability and wants me to be a senator."

Flake acknowledged Carmona, who has never held office, has no voting record, but vowed to continue to paint Carmona as an Obama political clone "until he takes a position that is at variance with the Obama administration."

All that amused Libertarian Marc Victor.

"The two parties are the ones that got us into situation to begin with," he said, adding that the only real change will come when neither party is in power.

Much of the hourlong debate was punctuated by the two major party candidates accusing each other of changing positions.

Carmona charged Flake has waffled on questions of immigration reform, taking a hard-line stance during the GOP primary and now seeking to curry favor with Hispanics. Flake responded Carmona has been all over the board on the issue of the Affordable Care Act, at one time professing unqualified support.

On Wednesday, Carmona said he supports the concept, but he would not have voted for the measure as it came to the floor.

"I believe it's unsustainable in the long run," he said.

"When we look at adding 32 million into the system, the way the business plan is set up to take money from the doctors, money from the hospitals, they're already being threatened," Carmona said.

"What I'm fully behind is the aspiration to ensure that every American has access to a basic set of health-care benefits," he said.

Flake did not spell out his alternative.

The bigger distinction between the pair is over the question of "earmarks," special spending provisions inserted into federal budget bills for favored projects.

Flake takes credit for the fact that, technically speaking, there are no more earmarks because of changes he pushed as a member of the House of Representatives. But Carmona said lawmakers still have ways of getting pet projects funded.

Carmona said he supports earmarks, in whatever form, to get needed projects for the state.

"Not all earmarks are pork," he said, arguing federal funding for some projects will help bring jobs to the state.

Flake said Carmona's position points up the sharpest difference between them.

"He's only been a Democrat for a year now but he has adopted the Democratic playbook through and through that the source of jobs in this country is the federal government and not businesses or entrepreneurs," Flake said. "What we really need is surety on taxes and then to get a moratorium on these burdensome regulations that are strangling business in the state."

Victor said the debate over earmarks is silly because they amount to about one-half of one percent of the federal budget. While we're better off without them, he said, talking about them "is like talking about a drop of water in the ocean."

Flake said he remains a strong supporter of the kind of "broad-based immigration reform" he pushed in the House. That includes finding ways to let the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants already here remain, and some variant of the DREAM Act to provide a path to citizenship for those brought to the country illegally as children.

But he said there is no will in Washington to approve such measures until the border is secure. He defined a secure border as akin to the Yuma sector, where illegal crossing has been slowed to a trickle and federal agents have a "reasonable expectation" of apprehending those who enter illegally. "We don't have anything approaching that in the Tucson sector," Flake said.

Carmona said it's wrong to compare the two sectors and withhold support for immigration reform until there is virtually no illegal crossing in the Tucson sector. "We need comprehensive immigration reform now," he said.

On StarNet

Visit to find more coverage and election resources, including:

• Which federal, state and county jobs and school board seats are up for grabs in this election cycle.

• Candidates: bio info and answers to the Star's candidate questionnaire.