The two candidates in a tough fight to represent about a million Nevadans in Congress saved their sharpest attacks for their biggest audience.
Incumbent Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Republican challenger Joe Heck on Thursday engaged in their fourth debate in six days. It was their first debate aired live throughout Southern Nevada.
Heck emphasized his experience as an emergency room physician, small-business owner and Army reservist.
Titus repeatedly argued Heck would pursue policies that would unravel the progress made by Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama in helping the economy recover.
She also accused the former state senator of flip-flopping on Social Security and health care.
Heck accused Titus of failing to fulfill her self-described mandate to create jobs in the beleaguered 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of suburban Las Vegas, Henderson and the surrounding area.
"My opponent has said it is her job to create jobs," Heck said after citing Nevada's unemployment rate, which is approaching 15 percent. "If that is her job, then she has failed."
Titus appeared to catch Heck off guard when the candidates were allowed to question each other.
She asked Heck why he voted against an amendment she offered for a bill in the 2005 session of the Nevada Legislature, when both were senators. The amendment was to increase a property tax rebate for seniors from $500 to $1,000. She also accused Heck of voting for a tax break for banks.
"Do you still believe that supporting tax cuts for banks while opposing tax cuts for seniors was the right thing to do?" she asked.
Heck said that he didn't remember the vote on the tax rebate for seniors and that the tax cut for banks was meant to put them on equal footing with other businesses.
"I have no recollection of that vote," he said of the tax rebate vote. The bank vote, he said, corrected a two-tier system Titus supported in 2003.
"It didn't make a difference if it was banks," Heck said. "It could have been somebody who was making widgets or baskets."
Heck used one of his questions to ask Titus about ads run on her behalf that nonpartisan observers have said are untrue. He asked whether Titus, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, would tolerate students deceiving her the way she, according to Heck, deceived voters with ads.
"I certainly do not tolerate cheating in my classes, so that won't be a problem," Titus responded.
Heck's campaign returned to the line of attack after the debate, pointing out that Titus broke the rules of the agreed-upon format by referring to notes for her closing statement. Debate organizers confirmed Titus broke the rule.
"She said she doesn't tolerate cheating in the classroom, but she clearly cheated," Heck campaign manager Grant Hewitt said.
Jacob Thompson, director of the Sanford I. Berman Debate Forum at UNLV, said he thought the debate was evenly matched.
He said Heck "came off as polished" and "emphasized his credibility a lot, which I think was a good move."
Titus "has some fairly good arguments, but she seemed too defensive in some of her statements," Thompson said.
He said Titus did best when she was accusing Heck of flip-flopping. But she should have been more focused in sticking to her theme that Heck wants to look backward.
"Both sides did a decent job in this debate," Thompson said.
The debate at the Vegas PBS studio was sponsored by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 8NewsNow and Vegas PBS.
The race is among the most watched congressional races in the country but is overshadowed by the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican Sharron Angle.
Thompson said that because the Titus-Heck debate was on television, it was important for both candidates to be sharp.
"Appearance matters so much more on television," he said. "There is a lot more public attention."
Contact Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@review journal.com or 702-477-3861.