U.S. House Rep. John Spratt and challenger Ralph Norman exchanged some of the harshest words yet in their battle for Congress on Tuesday, sparring over Nancy Pelosi, the war in Iraq and Social Security during the last of eight debates before Tuesday's election.
With polls showing Republicans in danger of surrendering their House majority for the first time since 1994, Norman sought to portray a vote for Spratt as an endorsement of liberal lawmakers such as Pelosi, the House minority leader poised to become speaker if Democrats pick up 15 seats.
"I'm glad it's Halloween because John Spratt's mask is coming off," said Norman, a Republican from Rock Hill. "You parade as being a conservative, but you go to Washington and vote with the liberals. It's an extremist party represented by Nancy Pelosi."
Spratt, a York Democrat seeking his 13th term in the 5th District, fought back with a promise to reduce the federal deficit if he becomes chairman of the budget committee in a Democratic-led House. Returning to an argument he has made for months, Spratt said he was chosen as assistant leader to Pelosi because he represents the party's moderate-to-conservative wing.
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"The biggest differences between us are experience and seniority," Spratt said. "I'll be able to do more for South Carolina and more for the country. It's not to diminish Ralph. It's the experience I've got."
Unlike previous meetings in auditoriums from Newberry and Lancaster to downtown Rock Hill, illegal immigration did not dominate Tuesday's hourlong discussion, carried live on Columbia's WIS-TV. Instead, Social Security took center stage.
Spratt accused Norman of favoring privatization and has repeatedly pressed him to explain how diverting money from the trust fund will keep Social Security solvent.
"I'll make a statement that you don't understand because you've never understood this," said Norman, adding that he favors only partial privatization. "You cut spending. You just want to keep the money there."
Spratt argues spending cuts would come from Social Security benefits. "You're diverting money away from a trust fund that is short on money already," he said.
On the war in Iraq, the candidates differed sharply but covered little new ground.
"If you vote for John Spratt, his party is cutting and running," said Norman. "His party is coming home and leaving that country with no defense, and I think it's wrong."
Responded Spratt, who denied the charge: "We need to tell them, here's an events- driven schedule. We need to have that as a way of saying, 'This is what we expect over the next several months.' "
Spratt called for the departure of embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, under fire from both parties for mistakes in overseeing the war.
"Donald Rumsfeld has done a good job in my opinion," Norman countered. "That's a decision President Bush will have to make, not the politicians."
Norman also voiced support for Bush's stance on the treatment of terror suspects held in military prisons. Spratt voted for a compromise bill but said he had misgivings about some hard-line provisions toward detainees.
"I'm not worried about their rights to be honest with you," Norman said. "I'm worried about the American soldiers who are doing their best to win this war."
With five days left before the election, both candidates plan a flurry of campaign stops, with Norman embarking on a district-wide bus tour Thursday and Spratt visiting Darlington, Gaffney and at least five other cities.