U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (left) and State Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, a candidate for the 2nd District Congressional seat. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN; Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Tensions flared Monday night between Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democratic rival Jared Golden in the first televised debate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District candidates.

Independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar joined Golden and Poliquin for the debate broadcast from the studio of WCSH-TV and moderated by Pat Callaghan. In stark contrast to the largely collegial forums in Maine’s gubernatorial campaign, Poliquin and Golden sparred verbally from shortly after the outset of the one-hour event.

Poliquin, a two-term incumbent, wasted no time distinguishing himself from Golden, first by calling attention to Golden’s D grade from the National Rifle Association and F rating from the Gun Owners of Maine, compared to his A+ rating. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine also endorsed Poliquin earlier this year after the group criticized Golden for not returning its questionnaire.

“I am the only person on this stage who has a proven record of standing up for our 2nd Amendment Rights. Jared has a D rating with the NRA. He cannot be trusted with our 2nd Amendment rights,” Poliquin said, pointing his finger at Golden.

He then called Golden “a young radical that embraces a socialist agenda,” a phrase he repeated half a dozen times throughout the hourlong debate. In a district that gave its electoral vote to President Donald Trump in 2016 and where voter registration has tilted toward the GOP in the past four years, Poliquin aimed early and often to portray Golden as out of touch politically and culturally with residents of the increasingly conservative rural district.

Golden quickly responded, frequently reminding voters of his service in Afghanistan and Iraq as a U.S. Marine.

“The amount of lies coming out of Bruce’s mouth are astounding,” Golden shot back. “Twice already he’s called me a socialist.”

Golden said he supports the 2nd Amendment and the only restrictions on firearms he would back are those that will “keep a limited number of bad actors from getting their hands on any firearms to begin with,” including domestic abusers and people with histories of mental illness.

The 2nd Congressional District race is playing out on the national stage as one of about two dozen districts where electing a Democrat in November could help flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives. A New York Times poll released last month showed Poliquin leading with 47 percent support to Golden’s 42 percent, but with a margin of error that indicated the race to be close.

It’s also one of the most expensive races in 2018, raking in more than $4 million in outside money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Some of that money has funded televised attack ads linking 36-year-old Golden, the assistant Maine House majority leader, with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, from whom he has tried to separate himself. Poliquin referred to Pelosi as Golden’s “biggest backer” during the Monday debate.

Golden and Poliquin both said access to health care ranks at the forefront of their political agendas. Golden’s health care plan includes protecting Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — which Poliquin voted to repeal — and allowing people age 55 and older to buy into Medicare. Poliquin criticized Golden’s plan as a “radical, risky scheme that will end private health care.”

Maine’s elected leaders shouldn’t “prioritize taking away people’s health care like Congressman Poliquin did,” Golden said.

To which Poliquin retorted, “Jared just has a problem with the truth. He’s a young radical who has a socialist agenda.”

The debate highlighted efforts by Poliquin and Golden to define their opponent in negative terms for voters. Following ads that have increasingly tilted toward the negative in recent weeks, it sets the stage for a bruising four weeks until Election Day.

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