Rep. Jeff Flake (R) and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) engaged in a vigorous but respectful debate Wednesday night in their closely watched contest to replace retiring Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R).
The contest has in recent weeks moved to the forefront of battleground races that could determine which party will control the Senate in the next Congress.
Right off the bat in his opening statement, Flake sought to counter to Carmona's biography by accusing his foe of being unwilling to take concrete positions on issues.
"My opponent has a great résumé, but a résumé is not a plan," Flake said. "He's been running for nearly a year now, and we still don't know where he stands on the major issues of the day."
Carmona repeatedly referred to a national "infrastructure" that provided him opportunities for education and to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The term was as much of a subtle criticism of Flake as it was about the American Dream — the underlying charge being that Flake's fiscal conservatism will inhibit Arizona from obtaining its share of federal infrastructure funds.
Carmona repeatedly referred to Flake as a "chronic politician."
"The Congressman is doing all that he can to run from his record," Carmona said.
Flake exhibited frustration with Carmona — albeit generally with a smile.
When asked pointed questions, Carmona would often offer his explanations of the root of a problem, but he did not always give definitive answers to policy questions.
Flake called Carmona's statements on the future of Medicare "happy talk bromides that absolutely nobody could disagee with."
But this was as rough as the debate got. Unlike some other recent Senate debates, neither candidate seemed to have an appetite for personal attacks on the other. It was an issue-heavy conversation, with a focus on Medicare, earmarks, Libya and veterans' health care.
Both major party nominees tried to claim the independent high ground. Flake cited his well-known differences with GOP leadership; Carmona pointed to his literal and recent Independent Party affiliation.
Complicating the politics of the race is Libertarian candidate Marc Victor, who also participated in the debate. Flake is a Republican with libertarian tendencies, but Victor frequently attacked Flake from the small-government flank, a scene rarely witnessed on the floor of the House.