CONCORD, N.H.—Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) and her Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, squared off Tuesday in a televised debate that began cordially but ended with the candidates trading sharp barbs.
During the debate, moderated by NBC’s Chuck Todd, Brown painted Shaheen as a rubberstamp for President Obama’s policies.
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"She has, in fact, voted with the president over 99 percent of the time," Brown repeated several times. Brown said that he, by contrast, had one of the most bipartisan voting records during his time in the Senate.
For her part, Shaheen painted Brown as a party-line Republican and knocked him for carpet-bagging, noting that Brown originally considered running for governor in Massachusetts before deciding to stake his claim in New Hampshire.
"I don’t think New Hampshire is a consolation prize," Shaheen said. "We need a senator who is going to put New Hampshire first."
In those moments, Brown and Shaheen, were debating each other. However, most of the rest of the hour-long debate appeared to be between the Republican candidate and the Obama administration’s policies.
Among the topics posed to Brown and Shaheen were how to deal with the Islamic State, the Ebola virus, and immigration reform—all national issues that Brown has used to tie Shaheen to the president’s policies.
Brown said the first step to immigration reform must be securing the border.
"When is the border secure?" Todd asked. "What’s that metric?"
"You know when it’s secure when people don’t come across it," Brown replied in his biggest applause line of the night. (The audience was told not to applaud, but they occasionally disregarded Todd’s instructions.)
Shaheen was repeatedly asked to explain her own opinions on the president’s policies. When asked if she approved of President Obama’s handling of the job, she said, "In some ways I approve, in some ways I don’t approve."
When asked if she was proud of her role in passing the Affordable Care Act, Shaheen said "absolutely."
"I think making sure that almost 100,000 people in New Hampshire have access to health care is real progress for people in this state," Shaheen said.
The New Hampshire Senate race was not expected to be a nail-biter, and Shaheen led by double-digits in the early months of the race. However, Brown has closed the gap in the past few weeks and is now within the statistical margin of error in several polls.
On Friday, the Cook Political Report changed the race to a "toss-up" after months of leaning Shaheen, and a Monday Suffolk University poll showed Shaheen leading by only 3 points. That poll also reported that 56 percent of likely New Hampshire voters disapproved of Barack Obama's job as president.
The Brown campaign is banking on President Obama’s sinking favorability ratings, combined with Brown’s skills as a retail politician, to put him over the top and hand Shaheen her first electoral defeat since 2002, when she narrowly lost her Senate bid.
"If this were being held in a presidential year turnout, Shaheen would win [handily]," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told Politico Tuesday "But the prevailing political environment and the electoral arithmetic gives Brown a chance to make it close."
Shaheen acknowledged as much during the debate.
"Sometimes there’s factors that are beyond your control," Shaheen said when asked what she learned after losing her 2002 race. "There are things happening in the country that affect a race. And I think we’re seeing this now in this race. We’re seeing a lot of concern about what’s happening in the world. We’re seeing my opponent who has been grandstanding to make political gain on ISIS, on the border, on Ebola."
Shaheen and Brown will face off again in their last televised debate on Oct. 30.