RALEIGH — Democratic Senate hopefuls Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham clashed Thursday night over Social Security and campaign donations, in a televised debate that reflected the increasingly negative tone of the runoff.
The two Senate candidates, appearing on a 28-minute debate on WRAL-TV, agreed on the major issues, from opposition to offshore drilling to the need for government to take more steps to stimulate jobs.
But with the June 22 runoff just 12 days away, they continued to pick away at each other in front of the TV cameras, just as their campaigns have been doing in postal mail, e-mail and phone calls.
Cunningham, a former state senator from Lexington, most often played the role of the aggressor.
He questioned whether Marshall wanted to raise the retirement age for Social Security above 67. And he questioned her taking contributions from lobbyists even though she regulated them as secretary of state.
"It could disproportionately hurt a whole of people," Cunningham said of raising the Social Security retirement age.
"That is not what I said," Marshall replied. "I never said I would support raising it. My mother is living on it."
After the debate, Marshall told reporters that her comment in an Associated Press interview this spring about raising the Social Security age was meant only as one of a number of options that Congress might consider to fix the program, not something she would support.
Marshall went after Cunningham's ties to Washington. He was recruited into the race by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has received contributions and help from Democratic senators; he received a call of encouragement from President Barack Obama.
"You indicated you wanted to be a fresh voice in Washington, and yet you have received over $150,000 of Washington insider money," Marshall said. "How are you going to stand up to them?"
Voting his conscience
"I will exercise the independence that a United States senator representing North Carolina should exercise, the same sort of independence that I exercised in the state Senate voting my conscience, what my district wanted," Cunningham replied.
The Marshall campaign later said that Cunningham had received $108,000 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $40,000 from political committees associated with various Democratic senators.
When questioned after the debate, Marshall would not rule out accepting contributions from Democratic senators if she were the party's nominee.
"I would hope the other senators would be interested in me somewhat," she said.
Marshall was questioned about receiving $2,500 in donations from five North Carolina lobbyists even though she regulated lobbyists.
'A very small amount'
"It's a very small amount of money," Marshall said. "It is less than one-half of 1 percent [of her total contributions]. These are from good friends." She said she had taken on lobbyists in pushing through reforms to require them to disclose more information about how much they spend trying to influence legislation.
Cunningham said he saw no similarities between his taking money from Washington interests and Marshall's accepting donation from lobbyists.
"There is a real difference," Cunningham said. "I don't regulate anybody."
During the debate, the candidates were asked whether they could show independence from the Democratic leadership in Washington.
Marshall noted that she opposed Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan and that she was more likely to press for preserving state's rights in matters of regulation.
Cunningham said he would be more likely to challenge the Democratic majority on spending and on running up deficits.
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