As Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop and his Republican opponent Randy Altschuler met in their third debate in a week Thursday night, the two foes found themselves falling into a kind of comfortable shorthand.
The first half of the debate, held in Riverhead's historic Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, was on health care. And, as questions ranged from cost containment to out-of-state insurance coverage, and whether vouchers would really work, the answers from both candidates took on a similar tone.
When moderator Tim Kelly asked what would happen if President Barack Obama's signature health care reform is repealed, Bishop fell into a discussion of numbers -- 700 small businesses in Suffolk would lose tax credits, he said, and 4,700 men and women between 19 and 25 would lose coverage under their parents' plan.
Altschuler, a St. James businessman who lost in a race with Bishop by 593 votes two years ago, said he did not think such repeal would be a likely event, and that Obamacare did nothing to help places like Riverhead's Peconic Bay Medical Center recover the $10 million a year it loses in providing health care to the uninsured, or to limit excess medical costs like the $175,000 a year an obstetrician pays for malpractice insurance.
But, while their answers were polished, they failed to break new ground. "Thousands of businesses have asked to be exempted out of the Affordable Health Care Act. . . . One size doesn't fit all," Altschuler said.
"Congressman Ryan proposes turning Medicare into Vouchercare," said Bishop, of Southampton. "It will cost people $6,400 a year more than they pay now."
The debate format did not allow people to ask questions from the floor. The moderator read some questions from cards without naming the questioners, while others came from people watching online or listening via radio. As a result, there was little reaction from the 200 people in the audience, except for applause when both men, in turn, said Medicaid must be saved.
One unexpected answer did come toward the end of the debate, when Altschuler said that -- while he strongly supports Mitt Romney and expects him to win -- he could see himself supporting some of Obama's initiatives should the president be re-elected.
He noted that the 1st Congressional District is split nearly 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and that it would be unreasonable for him to vote with Republicans nearly 100 percent of the time. He urged Bishop to do the same.
Bishop's response was that it would be hard to support Romney's budget proposals because he wants to cut taxes, increase defense spending and reduce the deficit at the same time. "The math doesn't work," he said.
The two candidates agreed when asked about foreign policy. Bishop said it was important to get out of Afghanistan, provide strong support for Israel and keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. "I agree with everything Congressman Bishop said," Altschuler said.