- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican rival Thom Tillis used every opportunity in their last scheduled televised debate Thursday night to blast each other’s legislative records and reinforce themes from television ads heading into the final weeks of their tight race.

It was their third debate and second this week, but Libertarian nominee Sean Haugh joined them for the first time during the hourlong program at a Wilmington television studio aired elsewhere in the state.

While Haugh promoted his limited government, anti-war platform, the debate’s main attractions remained Tillis and Hagan in a race considered to be one of a handful that will determine which party holds the Senate majority in 2015.

Here’s the rundown on the debate’s major themes:

CATCH PHRASES

In her opening statement, Hagan said, “North Carolina needs a common sense voice, somebody who will always put the best interest of our state before anything else” before proceeding to tell viewers that Tillis puts the interests of the Republican Party and its allies ahead of the people. It’s reiterating her strategy to link Tillis to the unpopular GOP-led legislature.

She mentioned at least three times that under Tillis’ leadership as state House speaker, the legislature let expire the state’s film production tax credit, a significant issue for the region’s large film and television industry. It’s been replaced by a less generous grant program.

Tillis said at least a half-dozen times that Hagan was a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama’s policies, which Tillis said were dampening the economic recovery. He’s been laser-focused on connecting the first-term senator to the president. “If we want to change the president’s policies, we have to change our senator,” he said.

MEETING MISSTEPS

Tillis kept harping on Hagan for her attendance record at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings this year and emphasized Hagan’s acknowledgement that she missed a February meeting because of a scheduled campaign fundraising reception in New York. The closed meeting on “current and future worldwide threats” to national security had been rescheduled for the afternoon, Hagan and her campaign said.

“What on earth could be more important than understanding the threat to our men and women in uniform and the threat that ISIS poses in the Middle East and to our own safety and security?” Tillis asked, referring to the Islamic State.

Hagan said she’s led Senate committee meetings on the threat while Tillis has failed to provide details on his strategy to eliminate the Islamic State. “I am well informed on these issues, but I think Speaker Tillis has been spineless because he will not say what he would do,” she said.

She also pointed out that Tillis had missed key votes and debates as state House speaker. On at least two occasions, he was in Washington raising money. Tillis said Hagan’s missed meetings were more important.

STIMULUS SLEIGHTS?

Both Hagan and Tillis tried to capitalize on the other candidate’s brush with federal stimulus funds approved in 2009, which Hagan voted for during her first year in the Senate.

The state Republican Party filed a U.S. Senate ethics complaint this week against Hagan alleging that her husband improperly benefited from the economic stimulus law when a business he co-owned received nearly $390,000 in federal grants and tax credits created by the stimulus law. Hagan said it was a “baseless attack” against her and that she and her office had nothing to do with the grants or the grant process. She said a lawyer for her husband found his activity to be appropriate.

Meanwhile, a Democratic group announced it would file a State Ethics Commission complaint against Tillis for his support of a green-energy tax credit program that benefited a bank in which Tillis holds stock. Tillis dismissed that argument and pointed it was Hagan who voted for the broader stimulus law, not him.

HAUGH’S MOMENT

Haugh, a former state Libertarian Party leader from Durham who ran for U.S. Senate in 2002, declined to criticize Hagan and Tillis directly but said he was running to offer an alternative to the policies that have led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ever-expanding national debt.

“We need to stop all war and stop spending more money than we have,” Haugh said.

Haugh found common ground with the other candidates on some issues. He agreed with Hagan on supporting gay marriage. In a question on the minimum wage, he agreed with Tillis that wages should be set by the marketplace and said a higher minimum wage could lead to a higher cost of living.

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