Democrat Jahana Hayes doubled down on the importance of education, while her Republican rival Manny Santos burnished his conservative credentials at a debate before an audience of college students Wednesday night.

Hayes and Santos are running for the 5th District congressional seat, which is represented now by retiring Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty.

Neither candidate took any shots at the other during the forum at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

Republican Manny Santos during the Wednesday night debate at CCSU.

But Santos began and ended the evening attacking what he derisively called the “Democrat Party.”

He took a page from the national Republican playbook by saying Democrats back a “Medicare for all” plan that would “bankrupt” the nation, support “sanctuary cities” that protect illegal immigrants, and espouse “destructive, progressive policies.”

Santos spoke of a divided nation and said the Democratic Party “has been co-opted by the extreme left and become socialism.”

Hayes, meanwhile, said her campaign for Congress made her realize that we “all want the same things”

“We want a brighter future for our children. We want better access to high quality education. We want to be able to love who we love, and have health care and jobs. We want our families to be safe and protected and we want people to be welcomed in our communities,” Hayes said.

Santos drew scattered boos from the young audience by saying students should be responsible for their college debt.

“When you enter college, you have the knowledge that these loans are something you have to pay back,” Santos said. “It’s an issue that you have to take responsibility for. It’s not something someone else can bail you out of.”

He urged students to work part-time to afford college.

“I did that,” he said.

Santos did say, however, that he backs one federal student loan forgiveness program – for students who choose to work in a substance abuse facility.

University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin said the debaters “were clearly mismatched in terms of their skills at that type of forum.”

“But I have to give (Santos) credit for standing up to a college audience and being forthright in not supporting student aid or loan programs,” Schurin said.

Jahana Hayes, Democratic candidate for the 5th district, gives her opening remarks during the CCSU debate.

Hayes, a former national Teacher of the Year, who was forced to drop out of school when she became pregnant at 17, said she herself fell victim to student loans when struggling to obtain a college education.

“I didn’t understand that I would graduate from college with more than $100,000 in debt for a job that paid only $26,000,” she said.

Hayes supports tougher regulations on what she called “predatory” student loans and for reduction of interest rates – and even the forgiveness of loan principal – for those who are years out of school and productive members of their society.

When the debate turned to questions relating to national politics, Santos deflected a question about how he would define “high crimes and misdemeanors” that is cited by the U.S. Constitution as grounds for impeachment of a federal official.

Instead, Santos repeated a national GOP campaign talking point that congressional Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi aim to impeach President Donald Trump if the GOP loses both chambers of Congress.

Some Democrats have called for Trump’s impeachment, but Pelosi and fellow Democratic leaders have avoided going that far, knowing it would energize the GOP base.

“I think using the word ‘impeachment’ is very divisive,” Pelosi told a group of Harvard University students Tuesday. “And that isn’t a path that I would like to go down.”

Hayes said she would define high crimes and misdemeanors “as any action that puts the country in peril,” or hurts the residents of the 5th congressional District.

Hayes also cited better education as a solution to the nation’s economic problems, the disproportionate number of minority inmates in the nation’s prisons, and even the nation’s opioid crisis.

On gay marriage, Hayes said she supports it. Santos said he does not.

“I personally am not in favor of gay marriage,” Santos said, noting it is legal in Connecticut. “That’s not to say I am not in favor of legal unions – or support discrimination.”

Santos said he supports enhanced school security and more mental health care to prevent mass shootings like the one that killed 20 first graders and six educators in Newtown, a town in the 5th District.

Hayes said she supports expanded FBI background checks of prospective gun buyers and “will fight anything that has to do with arming teachers.”

Santos defended the GOP federal tax overhaul and its cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes, which the Republican said would not hurt many Connecticut taxpayers.

In contrast, Hayes said, “The tax bill did a great job of hurting people in the state.”

Both candidates agreed there should be curbs on the prescription of addictive opioid drugs. Both candidates also favor stronger support for trade schools.

But mostly, their political visions were far apart, as were their approaches to the debate.

“Nothing Hayes said tonight would alienate anyone who is on her side or gently leaning to be on her side,” Schurin said. “Hayes presented herself more effectively than her opponent, but you did come away knowing Santos’s stance philosophically.”

The debate was sponsored by Fox61 television and CCSU.

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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