U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack participated in a nationally televised congressional debate Thursday night at the Santa Maria Winery. The debate aired live on “Iowa Press” and CSPAN.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack participated in a nationally televised congressional debate Thursday night at the Santa Maria Winery. The debate aired live on “Iowa Press” and CSPAN.
Friday, October 26, 2012

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A nationwide audience that included 230 people on site at Santa Maria Winery witnessed canyon-sized difference emerge Thursday night between the two major-party candidates seeking to represent Iowa’s new 4th Congressional District.

Appearing on a one-hour live broadcast of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press,” U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, made the case for a national sales tax to replace the income-tax system, argued the anti-abortion cause and sought to paint Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack as something of an Iowa proxy for San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

“This isn’t a centrist running against a conservative,” King said. “This is someone I think that’s postured themselves as a centrist, but when you look at the positions, it’s an entirely different story.”

For her part, Vilsack portrayed herself as a bridge-builder who won’t seek to cultivate the sort of national brand that’s made King a favorite of the American right.

“I’m going to Congress to do something, not to be someone,” Vilsack said.

King said effective representation involves advocacy beyond the state’s borders, that it’s naive for Vilsack to claim she can simply function as an economic-development cheerleader for Iowa, only looking to vote her district at all times.

“If you want to take this to another level, you’ve got to go outside the district and you’ve got to sell Iowa values to the rest of the country,” King said.

The “Iowa Press” session aired live on the national public-affairs channel CSPAN, giving Carroll exposure as a number of local businesses, notably the winery, were featured in a film montage introducing the program.

In terms of the politics, what wasn’t said by the candidates drove much of the post-debate discussion among Carroll-area residents.

King supporters seized on Vilsack’s lack of a specific time period, a number of months or weeks, that she believes Americans should be allowed to collect unemployment benefits.

“You have to make sure that we actually have a recovery and we need to protect people,” Vilsack said.

When pressed on the matter she repeatedly declined to provide a number.

“My answer is 26 weeks,” King said quickly.

He argued that prevailing extensions on unemployment assistance to 99 weeks afford opportunities for laziness, a lack of industry on the part of too many Americans.

“We need to understand that there’s not a lot of return on that investment, that you have people that are age 63, when they’re promised 99 weeks of unemployment, that’s an early retirement,” King said.

For Craig Williams of Manning, chairman of the Carroll County Republican Party, Vilsack’s handling of the question served as a revealing moment, a clear window into what he believes is her big-government philosophy.

“Not coming back with a number to me sounds like unlimited. That’s what I gathered out of it,” Williams said. “I thought it was pretty telling.”

The two candidates were questioned about their positions on abortion with Vilsack saying she wanted to make that option “safe, legal and rare.”

King, Roman Catholic, said his views were “completely consistent” with his church. King said he would be “generally” supportive of the intent of so-called “personhood” legislation that would provide babies in the womb the same rights as ones sleeping in cribs, or for that matter, Americans walking the streets.

Some King detractors insisted the congressman did not provide a firm answer on whether he believed governments could or should ban the use of contraceptives. But King said such a contention is “manufactured from the other side of the aisle.” King cited the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut which said a state’s ban on contraception violates marital privacy.

“I accept that decision as constitutional,” King said, adding that any efforts to mine his position further on the matter amounted to pure political gamesmanship.

Bret Hayworth of The Sioux City Journal, a former Carroll Daily Times Herald reporter and one of the “Iowa Press” panelists, asked King to explain why in July 2006 he went to the House floor to display the model of a wall he said he personally designed for the U.S. border with Mexico and likened illegal border crossers to farm animals.

“We need to do a few other things on top of that wall, and one of them being to put a little bit of wire on top here to provide a disincentive for people to climb over the top or put a ladder there,” King said on the House floor.  “We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that would not kill somebody, but it would be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time.”

King told “Iowa Press” Thursday he wanted to get right to the “tinker toys” and show elected officials how easy it is to build a wall at the border.

Vilsack said she supports secure borders and strongly condemned King’s references to a suggested use of electricity on human beings seeking to breach a barrier. She also said King and other members of Congress have simply failed when it comes to needed immigration reform.

Former State Rep. Jim Dress, a Manning Democrat who supports Vilsack, said she was effective with counter punches in the debate.

“She makes old King squirm a little bit,” Drees said. “I think she’s coming along good. Who knows what’s going to happen.”

Early in the debate, Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson asked Vilsack about her use of gender as a campaign issue. Iowa joins only Mississippi in having never elected a woman to the U.S. House, U.S. Senate or as governor. But Vilsack said she’s not asking people to vote for her just to shatter a glass ceiling.

“I think that’s one of the lenses I bring to this,” she said.

King and Vilsack agreed on some issues. Both support the use of unmanned drones for military purposes.

“I haven’t raised a public issue against drones,” King said. Vilsack said she isn’t “particularly concerned” about the use of drones in combat.

Both candidates voiced strong support for Israel and a willingness to use American force if necessary to protect that American ally. King and Vilsack were also open to certain changes or  cuts in the military with King saying his sense is there is “too much brass” in the armed services, and perhaps too many civilian employees.

Meanwhile, Vilsack said America’s might in the future will be measured largely by economic muscle. The United States needs to have a “nimble” military that “might be smaller,” Vilsack said.

“I thought Christie Vilsack presented herself well and certainly gave some new ideas and new thought for this district and she would represent us well,” said C.J. Niles of Carroll, a Democrat. “She’s a person who brings people together and isn’t a partisan person and is willing to work and reflect the views of this area. She talks about small communities and how can really use economic development.”

Frank O’Tool of Carroll, a Republican, said King articulated himself well.

“I have to say that I found it very easy to follow him and to understand what he was saying,” O’Tool said. “I guess I just really support him for the positions he has taken.”

Williams, the Carroll GOP chairman, saw the debate as a slam dunk for King.

“She barely took a stand on anything of any substance that I could see,” Williams said. “You may or may not agree with the congressman’s stands, but you always know where he stands because he always gives you a direct answer and he never wavers from it. I love that about the man.”