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A continuing spat over education policy played prominently into the only televised debate between Utah's main 4th District competitors, Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens, and led to accusations of negative campaigning on both sides.
KUED's Ken Verdoia, who moderated Tuesday's debate in Salt Lake City, led out with a question on education funding. Love said she wants to bring as much local control to Utah's schools as possible and suggested shifting federal funding from the Department of Education to school districts. Owens said his goal is "to make sure children are equipped to compete in a global economy."
And then the fireworks began.
Owens criticized Love for previously saying she'd eliminate the Department of Education, a position she has since backed away from.
"Frankly my opponent's views on this issue are quite extreme, they do not come from Utah, they come from some other place and frankly some other era," he said.
Owens hit Love again on the issue of college debt, saying that she wanted to get rid of student loans and Pell Grants, which he said would "pull the rug" out from students seeking an education.
On this topic, Love returned fire.
"I have never called to do away with student loans, let's be clear about that."
She said she believed the ease of obtaining federally backed student loans has caused tuition to rise faster than inflation.
She also suggested Owens came from a privileged background being the son of a former congressman, the late Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.
"Now, I'm not the daughter of a congressman, I doubt that many of us are," she said. "But I can tell you at this rate that higher education will only be attainable by the rich and the elite, and as a parent and a representative, looking to represent this district, I can't stand by and allow that to happen."
After the debate, Love refused to say whether she supported federally backed student loans or not. In her 2012 race against Rep. Jim Matheson, which she narrowly lost, she sent a campaign mailer that included a list of cuts. Eliminating student loans and Pell Grants were on that list.
Love says that mailer was intended to be a starting point for a discussion and not a definitive list of her policy positions, though that is not how it was presented.
During the debate, Owens used a question on immigration reform to suggest that voters should research her student loan position, which got under Love's skin.
"I find it interesting that my opponent claims he wants to end the dysfunction, yet with the other hand he does everything he can to attack," Love said.
"I don't think it is an attack to point out differences of issues. I have high respect for my opponent... you will never hear a personal comment from me," Owens said. "But I do feel it is incumbent upon me to point out differences on issues. Some of these are extreme issues."
Love returned to Owens' claims that she was extreme later in the one-hour debate.
"I want to just address this notion of extreme. I believe that extreme is $17 trillion in debt and no plan to fix it," she said. "Extreme is the hijacking 20 percent of our economy through the passage of Obamacare without bipartisan support. Extreme is ignoring the rising cost of tuition, and attacking your opponent for trying to find solutions."
After the debate, Love told reporters that Owens trusted "Washington bureaucrats more than the people of Utah," and Owens said that was "negative campaigning."
In between the jousting, Love and Owens sought to appeal to moderate voters. Love saying she will bring the decision-making close to the people and Owens saying that he wouldn't vote a straight party line if elected.
They agreed that the Affordable Care Act needs major overhaul, including eliminating a tax on medical devices, though Love still supports a full repeal, which Owens said is futile.
On immigration, Owens supported a comprehensive bill that would include a path to citizenship, similar to what the Senate passed in 2013. Love wants to take a piecemeal approach starting with border security and a simplified legal immigration process. She didn't say in the debate whether she supports a pathway to citizenship. She has addressed that in other forums, including the Tribune editorial board, where she does support an eventual citizenship process for undocumented immigrants.
The two candidates will face off one more time on KSL Radio's Doug Wright Show on Oct. 30. An independent poll, commissioned by UtahPolicy.com, found that Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, is leading Owens by 9 percentage points in the district that includes the west side of Salt Lake and Utah counties along with portions of central Utah.
Tuesday's debate was the last one of the year sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and it was seen on all of Utah's major television stations, PBS and the state's public radio stations.
The public can view any prior debates at utahdebatecommission.org.