Updated Friday, Oct. 19, 2:19 p.m.
Norwalk -- Conversation was fast-paced and lively Thursday in the second debate between the candidates for Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District seat -– but Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and Republican challenger Steve Obsitnik struggled to articulate their differences.
Unlike at last week’s debate, which focused on foreign policy, panelists asked questions about issues like Social Security, health-care reform and the impending “fiscal cliff.” While they were pressed for specifics, the candidates offered very few.
“We have to stop the scare tactics,” said Obsitnik when asked how to assure the long-term sustainability of Medicare. He stressed the need to control rising health care costs and brought up one specific solution to the problem, suggesting that credit card technology be applied to Medicare card-holders to prevent fraud and abuse.
The commission recommends raising the payroll tax and eligibility age for the program. “Now it’s down to Congress to sit down in a bipartisan fashion and address it,” Obsitnik said of the recommendations.
In their debate at the Norwalk Inn, both candidates stuck closely to their campaign messages, with Obsitnik lambasting Himes as a “career politician” who has generally voted with his party on most issues in Congress.
Obsitnik's rebuttals were peppered with the phrase “the facts are the facts” and with statistics such as “9 percent unemployment” and “23 million people out of work” –- a tactic that presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also been using against Barack Obama to claim he broke his campaign promises.
He has centered his campaign around a promise to vote with his conscience, rather than with his party. In his closing statement, he repeated his pledge to serve as Congressman for no longer than eight years.
Himes stressed his service in Congress for four years and accused Obsitnik of “hypocrisy” for criticizing the government’s stimulus program while accepting millions in government money to help his own technology business based in Rochester, N.Y.
Both candidates were clearly toeing the line in a congressional district that has historically supported candidates in or near the center of the political spectrum.“You’re not hearing clarity. You’re not hearing clear answers to questions,” Himes told the audience of more than 100 in his closing statement. “You’re hearing partisanship.”
Obsitnik, a businessman who has never before run for political office, is trying to win back a seat that had been held by a moderate Republican for decades until Himes won in an upset in 2008.
Asked what needs to be done about the fiscal cliff, Obsitnik said only “we need to move forward and set a date by the end of the fiscal year where we can address thoughtful tax reform, spending reform, and put a budget in place.”
Himes had this to say on that issue: “We must avoid the fiscal cliff, because if all the tax increases occur and all the spending cuts occur, we go back into recession.” Bipartisan actors will arrive at a deal that looks like Simpson-Bowles, “probably in the first quarter of next year.”
The incumbent also took one parting shot at his opponent's political inexperience in the closing remarks: "I'm not sure that he really thought about doing this before," Himes said.
Obsitnik, who spent many years out of state before moving his family to Westport in 2005, "did not vote in 2005," Himes said. "He did not vote in 2006," he continued. "He did not vote in 2007. He did not vote, according to the Westport registrar of voters, in 2008, when he could have kept me from having this job!"
Obsitnik did not have a chance to respond, as Himes' closing statement was the final one.
Obsitnik's communications director, Amanda Bergen, said Friday that the candidate voted in the 2008 election, but not in 2005, 2006 or 2007.