The Republican primary for Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's seat has grown increasingly hostile in recent weeks, but the three candidates barely attacked one another at a debate Monday night near St. Louis.
The tone remained markedly civil as Rep. Todd Akin, businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman answered questions about health care, federal spending and foreign policy in a 90-minute debate at Lindenwood University in St. Charles.
Questions about health care dominated the evening. All three candidates said they want to repeal every piece of President Obama's health care law — even the provisions that some Republicans support, such as requiring insurers to cover young adults on their parents' plans.
"Sometime a system is so infested with termites, and sometimes it's a whole heck of a lot better to tear the whole thing down to the ground level," Mr. Brunner said.
Mr. Brunner said he supports the Medicare plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. Mrs. Steelman said insurers should be allowed to sell across state lines and health savings accounts should be more accessible. And Mr. Akin said he would dismantle the whole system of employer-based insurance so that Americans could keep their coverage even when they change jobs.
It was a bad evening for the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, after Mr. Akin and Mrs. Steelman quickly named both agencies when asked which parts of the federal government they would like to ax.
The question prompted the only direct attack of the night, with Mrs. Steelman sending a light jab Mr. Akin's way.
"I wish he would have already cut that out of the budget since he's serving in Washington," she said.
"I sure wish we had a chance," Mr. Akin responded. "Many of us are licking our chops. The trouble is we don't have a lot of Democrats who agree with us, and that's the whole point of this election."
Some differences emerged when the candidates were asked how they would handle the growing unrest in Syria. Mrs. Steelman and Mr. Brunner emphasized caution but said they were open to committing troops to the country, while Mr. Akin said America should stay out of the "no-win situation."
But on Social Security, all three said the system should be preserved for current seniors but younger folks should be allowed to set up private savings accounts.
Mrs. McCaskill's campaign quickly jumped on their responses, firing out an email accusing all three of favoring Wall Street investors over seniors.
"Tonight they made crystal clear that they'd rather abandon our seniors to the whims of the stock market than take even a modest step toward ending huge tax giveaways to big oil companies and corporations," said McCaskill spokesman Erik Dorey.
The latest polls show Mr. Brunner and Mr. Akin closely trailing Mrs. Steelman, but all of the candidates beat Mrs. McCaskill in hypothetical matchups.
Mr. Brunner and Mrs. Steelman didn't exchange any blows, even though they spent the past few weeks battering each other.
After Mr. Brunner released a television commercial in which he accused his opponents of supporting wasteful spending and debt increases, both accused him of misrepresenting their work, and Mrs. Steelman said he doesn't understand how business works.
The primary is scheduled for Aug. 7.
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