Rep. Tim Bishop and his opponent, Randy Altschuler, in their first debate Sunday, staked out opposing views on some of the election's most divisive issues -- from health care and gay marriage to who has a better plan to slash the federal deficit.
The contrasts in their positions were clear during their faceoff before several hundred people at First Baptist Church of Riverhead, but the candidates steered clear of the attacks that have defined their competing television ad campaigns in recent weeks.
The two men, separated by just 593 votes in 2010, touted what they feel makes them the more attractive option. Bishop said it was his ability to get results in district problems large and small; Altschuler pointed to his private-sector business credentials and outsider status.
"We have two very different visions of America," Altschuler said in closing the Long Island Organizing Network debate. "While constituent service is certainly important, we have huge problems that have been created in this country."
At several points, Altschuler referred to the nation's expanding deficit since 2002, when Bishop was first elected, and Suffolk County's larger unemployment rate. He said he was the only one who had devised a specific jobs plan featuring policies to loosen regulations on local farmers and fisherman.
Bishop called attention to his bipartisan efforts to boost the local economy, including a bill to bring federal aid to municipalities' wastewater infrastructure improvement plans. He said Altschuler was wrongly blaming him for failures driven by the House GOP majority, and assailed the budget plan from vice presidential hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that Altschuler largely endorses.
"Everything has to be about jobs," Bishop said, "and the Ryan budget takes this country in the wrong direction."
Bishop expressed his unqualified support for marriage equality.
Altschuler said he believes "in the traditional definition of marriage" but that the decision should be left to states.
On health care reform, Altschuler said he agrees with Bishop in supporting the law's rule against insurance companies excluding patients with pre-existing conditions. But he cited his wife's experience as a pediatrician when he said the law does not address many financial pressures of the health care industry.
Bishop, in trying to show that many professional medical associations supported Obama's health care law, drew boos when he suggested that Altschuler's wife "must be out of touch," since a large pediatricians association supported the president.
"This was a very important step on the path to reform," Bishop said. "The system simply wasn't working."
Altschuler replied: "This bloated program is not going to fix the system."
The two candidates are scheduled to debate again Monday night at Hampton Bays High School.