Tight NC Senate Race Keeps to Playbook in 1st Debate

(Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

The first debate in North Carolina's tight U.S. Senate race Wednesday night picked up where the million-dollar ad campaigns have left off: asking voters to vote against leadership in Washington or Raleigh.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan criticized Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis for supporting hardline conservative positions in the state legislature, while Tillis repeatedly called his incumbent opponent a "rubber-stamp" for President Obama's agenda.

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Hagan, 61, accused Tillis of cutting $500 million in education funding from the state budget while ushering tax breaks through the GOP-controlled state legislature for wealthy North Carolina residents. Tillis pointed to the 7 percent teacher pay increase passed through the state legislature this summer.

Tillis, 54, accused Hagan of lying about Obamacare when she told voters they could keep their health insurance plans, and said she voted with Obama 95 percent of the time.

Running a close race in a purple state, Hagan said she "stood up to the president and my party when it is right for the people of North Carolina," and mentioned her support of the Keystone XL pipeline and opposition free trade agreements.

When the debate turned to foreign policy, Tillis slammed Washington Democrats for lacking a response to the advance of the terrorist group ISIS and the beheading of two U.S. journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

"How on earth can you not have a strategy for an organization that is almost ten years old?" Tillis said. "Today it is less safe than when Kay entered office in 2008."

Hagan replied that she supported arming moderate Syrian rebels and supported congressional authorization for a campaign against ISIS.

Tillis countered that Hagan "should be slamming the table for this president, not rubber-stamping a failed policy."

Tillis had difficulty with questions about minimum wage. When asked whether he would change North Carolina's $7.25 minimum wage, he only said the question is "best left to the states."

In her response, Hagan mentioned Tillis opposition to equal pay in North Carolina, raising an issue Democrats hope will resonate with women in November.

"I didn't raise my two daughters to think they were worth 82 cents on the dollar," Hagan said. "When I look at Speaker Tillis' record on women, it is abysmal."

The GOP challenger also struggled when asked whether the federal government should continue offering military equipment to state and local law enforcement. "We owe police officers a debt of gratitude," Tillis said, adding the government should "leave it to municipalities and police departments."

"There weren't any knockouts or gaffes," University of North Carolina-Charlotte professor Eric Heberlig said. "If the election were tonight, we'd be staying up pretty late."

The next debate, which will be hosted by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, will be Oct. 7. The candidates have agreed to a third debate, which has yet to be announced.

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