PLATTSBURGH — Douglas L. Hoffman and Matthew A. Doheny were supposed to debate the issues important to the 23rd Congressional District here Wednesday. But when it became apparent they agreed on almost everything, the two Republicans filled their time by nattering on about each other's personal shortcomings.
The verbal combinations may have entertained those who already have picked the candidate they'd like to see try to unseat Rep. William L. Owens in November, but debate organizer Mark L. Barie said the sniping left him less impressed with both hopefuls.
"I score both candidates down because that stuff wasn't necessary," the chairman of the Upstate New York Tea Party said. "I'm not sure boating under the influence and interest on loans should be campaign issues."
With time running out before the Sept. 14 primary, both candidates have gone on the offensive in television advertisements running across the district.
"There's only one candidate on this dais right now who actually takes interest, i.e. money, from his campaign donors. That's Doug Hoffman," said Mr. Doheny, a Watertown portfolio manager. "He's already actually trying to make money from his campaign donors and actually taking interest from them. He's lined his pocket with other donations and with other reimbursements for his businesses. It's flat out wrong."
Mr. Hoffman charged and collected 7.5 percent interest on loans he made to his two congressional campaigns, a practice that is legal, although uncommon.
"You know damn well that the FEC reports require you to itemize and list all campaign expenses," the Saranac Lake accountant said. "People who live in glass boathouses shouldn't be throwing stones. I was quiet on the comment regarding the BWI. But the way you treated those officers is just unacceptable."
Mr. Doheny recently disclosed two boating while intoxicated charges he received in 2004. In the first incident, U.S. Coast Guard officers described the attorney as being confrontational during questioning.
Mr. Doheny reiterated Wednesday that he was "embarrassed" by the incidents, adding, "If you look at the totality of my record, I think people can trust me."
On the economy, the two candidates both argued that the federal stimulus plan has not created jobs. They championed continuing the Bush-era tax cuts to stimulate job growth, eliminating the "death tax" and working to ensure that Social Security stays solvent. Both suggested restructuring the retirement benefits program to protect those who are making contributions but not near the end of their careers, although there were no specifics.
Both touted expanding broadband infrastructure to lure more businesses to the district and talked in general about cutting back onerous regulations and taxes on small businesses.
On health care, both said they opposed the new reforms passed by Congress, arguing that people would be better served if insurance companies could compete for business across state lines.
As for the border that divides the district from Canada, both said the government needed to find a proper balance between security and allowing commerce to flow freely.
Mr. Hoffman, in an attempt to draw a distinction, played to the audience's loyalty.
"I'm the one who fought for your conservative values last year," he said, referring to his close loss to Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, during last fall's special election. "When I win the primary, I'm going to reunite the Republican and Conservative parties."
Mr. Doheny said the choice for voters "is between two good conservatives."
"Who can beat Bill Owens in November?" he asked. "Who is the most viable? Who has the most resources? Who has the best understanding of the district and works hard? It's a clear choice. It's me. Doug's a good man. But we saw what happened last time."
Mr. Barie said his group opted to endorse Mr. Hoffman in part because when conservatives "were in need, he stepped up to the plate" last year. "That took courage."
But the chairman expressed concern that Mr. Hoffman isn't as polished as his opponent.
"I thought Doug's style would have smoothed out a bit," he said. "Stylistically, he lost the debate. But on the substance of the issues, it was a draw."
The two candidates will debate again at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Harrietstown Town Hall, Saranac Lake.