The top Republicans running for the U.S. Senate engaged in a rock 'em, sock 'em debate Friday as Sue Lowden and her closest rival Danny Tarkanian attacked one another on politics and personal integrity.
Lowden, the GOP front-runner, accused Tarkanian of violating Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment that says Republicans shouldn't criticize one another, and then she struck out at her opponent just the same.
Lowden asked Tarkanian why the Nevada Supreme Court once reprimanded him for practicing law without a license.
Tarkanian said Lowden had her facts wrong and that the high court sanctioned him for failing to respond to a letter, a missive he said he and his wife don't recall receiving.
"Sue Lowden is again mistaken. I've never been sanctioned by the state Bar," said Tarkanian, although her campaign later cited a 2006 newspaper article that said he was sanctioned by the Supreme Court because he signed legal papers while his law license was inactive.
Tarkanian, in turn, criticized Lowden for defending the first government bailout of failing American industries, which started in the Bush administration and deepened under President Barack Obama.
He also struck at her record as a state senator, saying she had voted for taxes and fees. However, he saved his biggest attack for her financial support of Sen. Harry Reid's earlier campaigns several decades ago.
Tarkanian suggested there was a quid pro quo because Lowden and her husband, Paul, were seeking a gaming license in Missouri and Reid as head of the Nevada Gaming Commission had approved them as well. He asked her point blank if she donated to Reid "because of the license."
Lowden said Tarkanian had his dates mixed up, although she acknowledged contributing to Reid three decades ago when she said he had broader support in Nevada and represented the state well.
"People tell me he has changed, that he is not the same person he was three decades ago," Lowden said, referring to voters she has met while campaigning across Nevada. "Clearly, he's a different person than he was three decades ago. He doesn't represent us anymore."
The toe-to-toe tussle came during a one-hour debate hosted by conservative radio talk show host Heidi Harris of KDWN-AM, 720, who started the evening by letting candidates ask questions of one another.
"Nice round," Harris said after the initial series of candidate-on-candidate questioning that sparked the most fireworks among the five top GOP candidates six weeks ahead of the June 8 primary.
During the debate, Lowden and Tarkanian sat next to each other at the end of a table but rarely turned to look at one another eye to eye. Others on the stage inside The Orleans Showroom for the Senate debate included former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, Las Vegas Assemblyman Chad Christensen and investment banker John Chachas, an Ely native who has come home from New York to run for office.
The stakes have grown in the past few weeks with the GOP leader Lowden bloodied by local and national spoofs of videotaped comments she made during a town hall that people could barter with their doctors for cheaper health care. In defending her remarks, she noted that in years past people used chickens to barter, which prompted the Democratic Party and the Reid campaign to deride her and late-night comedians to poke fun in videos circulating on YouTube.
More seriously, just hours before the debate, a Democratic Party front group called Patriot America launched a statewide TV ad campaign that makes fun of what it calls Lowden's "Chickens for Checkups" plan.
In response to the "bartergate" gaffe, Lowden went on the offensive in an op-ed piece published Friday in Politico, a must-read newspaper and website for politicians in Washington and nationwide. In the piece, she attacked Reid and the health care reform law that the Senate majority leader helped pass over GOP objections and despite concerns from voters who are deeply divided about how it will affect them.
"The comment I made about bartering was not, and was never intended to be, a policy proposal. It was an example of how struggling families are working to pay for medical care in any way they can during these tough times," Lowden wrote in an effort to put out the fire.
Lowden's handling of the health care issue didn't come up in Friday's debate, where a near capacity and largely conservative crowd of 800 came to watch for free after waiting in first-come, first serve lines.
The Senate candidates all got in their licks, however, with Harris inviting them to take a whack at their opponents as she pulled names out of a Crown Royal whiskey bag to decide the order of questioning.
Christensen, whose name was drawn first, picked Tarkanian to question.
"What makes you feel like you can win this time?" Christensen asked, noting that Tarkanian has lost two previous elections and that Republicans will get only "one shot" to defeat Reid in the fall.
Tarkanian said his opponents "defamed" him and he noted he won a court case when a judge decided his opponent had gone too far.
"I'm a much better candidate now," added Tarkanian, a former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player who said that teams facing the toughest opponents turn out to be the best.
When Chachas' turn came, he said his question wasn't very exciting and he asked Angle how she would go about picking a U.S. Supreme Court justice, which Obama is trying to do right now.
Angle, a conservative favorite with a no-taxes legislative record to match, said she would vote for a strict constitutionalist.
"We have too many Supreme Court justices that are now legislating from the bench," Angle said.
Angle targeted Lowden with her question, suggesting she wouldn't be able to bring together and win support from the many conservatives groups that have endorsed Angle, from the Tea Party movement on the national level to gun owners and states rights organizations.
"How are you going to go across party lines and bring a coalition together to defeat Harry Reid and take back our country?" Angle asked, noting she has the backing of 20 conservative groups.
Lowden responded with a slap at Angle, saying the former assemblywoman hasn't endorsed her GOP primary foe in the past two elections that she narrowly lost for the state Senate and Congress.
"My coalition is everybody," said Lowden, who promised to endorse whichever GOP candidate emerged from the primary. She added she has broad support, including from independents and libertarians.
To that a woman in the audience shouted, "No you don't!"
Before the Senate debate, Harris hosted two back-to-back forums for select conservative Republicans running to unseat Democratic Reps. Shelley Berkeley in congressional District 1 and Dina Titus, a freshman who's in a tough race for re-election in District 3.
The most dramatic moment came when Stephen Nohrden, a Realtor and GOP candidate in the Titus race, interrupted the District 3 debate as it started to demand a place on the stage, but Harris refused.
"My name is Stephen Nohrden and I'm running for office," he shouted and asked to participate, but security dragged him out of the room.
"I'm sorry, sir. You're going. Bye-bye. See ya. Here's the bottom line," Harris said from the stage as she explained to the audience, some of whom booed as Norhden was led away. "If I don't know you're running until two days ago I guess you don't have much of a campaign."
That left two District 3 candidates on the stage -- Joe Heck, a physician and former state senator who is expected to win the primary, and Ed Bridges, a 74-year-old life insurance broker and Vietnam veteran.
Another Republican, Brad Leutwyler, a university professor, also is running in the primary but with little effect.
The debate among three of eight Republicans running in the District 1 primary for Berkley's seat included some prickly exchanges.
Michele Fiore, who was handpicked by state Republican Party leaders to get into the race, touted her credentials as a small business owner who runs health care companies with her mother.
Fiore accused one of her opponents, Craig Lake, of wrongly attacking her for having a tax lien against her over a disputed $49,000. She said she feels she doesn't owe the money to the Internal Revenue Service and she wondered what Lake would do if a constituent had the same problem, whether he would stand with the IRS or the taxpayer.
"Would you help them or would you tell them to just pay it?" Fiore asked.
Lake, a small business owner with a lighting company, suggested Fiore had let the problem go on for too long, for four years, although Fiore countered that she didn't know about the matter until 2008.
"I definitely would help them with their tax concerns," Lake finally said, adding a small dig. "I would hope they resolve that within four years."
Fiore and Lake shared the stage with a third candidate, Joseph Tatner, a writer and career coach who has Washington bill writing experience.
He refused the chance to ask a pointed question of his opponent, citing Reagan's commandment not to attack a fellow member of the GOP.
Instead, he said voters need to make sure and pick somebody who can stop Berkley from winning, if not this congressional election perhaps in 2012 if speculation is true that she might run for the U.S. Senate.
"You are the government, not the pointy heads at the top," he told the audience, winning a round of applause.
Harris, who picked questions from her listeners' e-mails, said she planned to air the debates on her show Monday morning.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.