WATERVILLE (AP) – Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud and Republican challenger Brian Hamel disagreed on taxes and prescription drugs but found common ground on environmental, veterans and other issues in their first debate Tuesday night.

Some exchanges between the two candidates for Maine’s 2nd District Congressional seat echoed those heard during the presidential debates.

Michaud said he agreed with America’s invasion of Afghanistan, but said President Bush entered Iraq with “no real coalition, no exit strategy, (and) no plan to win the peace.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” responded Hamel, “the biggest weapon of mass destruction is behind bars now and it’s Saddam Hussein.”

The evening debate at the Waterville Opera House highlighted the entry of the northern Kennebec County city and surrounding towns into the sprawling district, which covers northern, eastern and much of western Maine.

It also started a series of debates between Michaud, a veteran politician who is completing his first two-year term in the U.S. House, and Hamel, a former business executive who headed the Loring Development Authority in northern Maine.

Both candidates said they support reimportation of prescription drugs, but differed sharply on the administration-backed Medicare prescription drug benefit enacted by Congress.

Hamel called the bill “a great first step” and said Michaud’s measure to allow negotiation of drug prices to lower costs “is not going anywhere in Congress.”

Hamel also took Michaud to task for opposing Bush’s tax cut legislation, adding, “I’m a big believer in tax cuts.”

Michaud said he opposed “a giveaway tax bill that was not funded” and afforded breaks to corporations overseas.

The two were closer to agreement on the No Child Left Behind Act, which Michaud called “an unfunded mandate from Congress” that has cost the state $22 million and forced teachers to quit their professions early.

“That is wrong and that is why we have high property taxes,” said Michaud.

Hamel said the education law brings accountability to the schools, but added that it doesn’t recognize the different learning patterns between children in large cities and those in rural Maine. Hamel said he’s expressed his reservations about some portions of the bill to President Bush.

The debate turned testy at some points, with Hamel accusing Michaud of partisanship and Michaud responding that Hamel had taken “a negative tact” and was “going by the Republican playbook.”

Hamel chided Michaud for foregoing a seat on the Agriculture Committee, considering the needs of potato, blueberry and related industries in the 2nd District.

Michaud said his seat on the Transportation Committee provides more opportunities to bring economic development and jobs.

Hamel said Michaud’s work in Congress has not provided a single job in Maine, while his as head of the authority that redeveloped the former Loring Air Force Base into a commerce center has created more than 1,000.

The two agreed that clean air laws should protect Maine from midwestern industries’ pollution, and that veterans’ programs deserve high priority in Washington.

Tuesday’s debate was sponsored by the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers and moderated by David Offer, their executive editor. Offer asked readers of the Augusta and Waterville publications and reporters for questions to pose to the two candidates. He also raised some himself.

Hamel, of Presque Isle, wanted to have 11 debates in communities across the district. But Michaud, of East Millinocket, said his congressional schedule prevented that and agreed to four meetings where the two could exchange views.

The two candidates will face each other again in a debate to be taped by Maine PBS TV on Friday afternoon and aired that evening. They plan a live debate Monday at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. A debate to be taped by WLBZ-TV on Oct. 22 will air that night.

Also on the Nov. 2 ballot the 2nd District seat will be a candidate from the Socialist Equality Party, Carl Cooley of Jackson. The former teacher and sheep farmer is the first socialist to run for Congress in Maine.

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