Meeting for their first debate Thursday, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi clashed on tax cuts for the wealthy, the health-care overhaul and whether gays should openly serve in the military.

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SPOKANE — Meeting for their first debate Thursday, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi clashed on tax cuts for the wealthy, the health-care overhaul and whether gays should openly serve in the military.

But above all, the rivals offered starkly different views of whether Murray’s 18 years of experience in the U.S. Senate are beneficial for the state.

Murray said she listens every day to the concerns of ordinary Washingtonians and uses her clout to solve their problems in the Capitol.

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“Washington state is my family, and my family is hurting,” she said.

She blamed the economic morass facing families on “mistakes and greed on Wall Street” and said she’d “take on even the most powerful to make sure you have a voice at the table” as decisions on getting the country back to work are made.

But Rossi, the former state senator and two-time GOP contender for governor, accused Murray of being part of an entrenched power structure in Washington, D.C. He said Murray had been changed by her years in office and questioned which Washington she now represents.

“You have a senator who says one thing in Washington state and does another in Washington, D.C.,” Rossi said, citing her votes on the health-care and financial overhauls and other measures he said are jacking up the federal debt.

Rossi attacked Murray for voting to adjourn the Senate in its recent session without acting on whether to extend President Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

He said she was leaving great uncertainty to business owners about the taxes and regulations they’ll face in the future.

Murray said she supports keeping the tax cuts for the middle class and accused Rossi of backing cuts for the wealthiest Americans that would increase the federal debt and make it hard to pay for important services.

Rossi repeatedly attacked the health-care overhaul supported by Murray, calling it a partisan bill that was hastily rammed through the Senate.

He said the law amounted to a $500 billion tax increase and would cost “tens of thousands” of jobs in Washington state. Rossi, who wants to repeal the law, said he’d back other changes like limiting medical-malpractice lawsuits and cutting regulations on insurers.

Murray defended the law, saying it was a step toward freeing Americans from the whims of insurance companies that were routinely raising premiums and denying coverage to sick people.

However, she acknowledged the law was “not perfect” and said after the debate she’d heard from business owners worried about new paperwork requirements that may be too onerous. She said she’d work to fix such problems.

Throughout the one-hour debate, Murray repeatedly accused Rossi of failing to answer specific questions beyond a few talking points.

For example, when asked about whether federal budget cuts could jeopardize Hanford cleanup, Rossi started talking about his experience cutting the state budget in 2003 without raising taxes. He said he’d take a similar approach in the U.S. Senate, cutting spending by ending the stimulus program and slowing federal hiring.

Murray pounced, saying Rossi didn’t answer the Hanford question, and noted that thousands of workers at Hanford are now employed due to federal stimulus money. “He’d give them a pink slip,” she said, and allow nuclear waste to seep toward water supplies.

In a rebuttal, Rossi said the biggest problem for Hanford is that Murray’s Democratic allies, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have taken Nevada’s Yucca Mountain off the table as a nuclear-waste site. Murray, he suggested, had gone soft on Reid out of concern for his re-election chances.

“Our nuclear waste is going to be all dressed up with nowhere to go,” Rossi said.

In a night where both candidates largely stuck to their standard talking points, Murray gave one of her most impassioned answers when asked about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military.

A federal judge in Tacoma recently ruled that a decorated Air Force Reserve nurse, Major Margaret Witt, who was discharged for being a lesbian, should get her job back.

Murray called Witt “a hero” and talked about meeting an 18-year-old woman who said she feared she couldn’t serve in the military as a lesbian because of the policy. “She should be able to pursue her dream,” Murray said, adding that “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be ended.

Rossi didn’t say where he stood on the policy, saying he wanted to wait for a report due from the military on the ramifications of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“All this has to be done in a rational way,” he said.

Before Thursday’s debate, Spokane police arrested a 50-year-old man for menacing Murray supporters after he drove by them three times, waving a meat cleaver and yelling profanities. The man was booked into Spokane County Jail.

The only other scheduled debate for Murray and Rossi is set for Sunday in Seattle, hosted by KOMO-TV. Rossi asked for additional debates but Murray refused.

The competitive race has put Washington on the national midterm election map, bringing millions of dollars in TV advertising from national political committees and groups.

Murray, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is also bringing a steady stream of Democratic stars to the state to fire up her political base.

President Obama will headline a rally next week at the University of Washington — his second recent visit on Murray’s behalf.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota was expected to appear at a campaign event with Rossi on Friday in Spokane to talk about veterans’ issues.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or

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