The candidates in one of the nation's most-watched congressional races toned down the rhetoric in their second and final debate Wednesday, as Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland and Democratic challenger Gwen Graham found some common ground.
Before an audience of about 500 people at the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee, the candidates in North Florida's Congressional District 2 continued to spar over some of Southerland's votes, but agreed on more issues than they did in a contentious debate last month.
Compared to the first debate, the candidates all but held hands and sang "Kumbaya" at Tiger Bay -- and they did hug.
"At the end of this -- and I know this, because he and I have talked -- we are going to be friends," Graham said. "And we are going to support one another in the best interests of the people of Florida."
"I was thrilled to hear her talk about working together to make sure the people of North and Northwest Florida are served," Southerland said afterward. "Thats what we are here to do. I am pleased with how today went, and the spirit of the debate was healthy."
The debate, moderated by journalist Carl Cannon, came in the home stretch of a race that is considered one of the Democrats' strongest chances to pick up a seat in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
The district includes 14 counties, ranging from heavily Democratic Leon and Gadsden counties, in the east, to the heavily Republican Panama City area and smaller, more rural counties to the west. Graham is from Tallahassee, while Southerland is from Panama City.
Their race is rated a tossup by national political analysts and has drawn millions of dollars from outside groups. That prompted the candidates' strongest agreement in the debate, on the negative influence of outside money, which has fueled attack ads that both called lies.
The candidates agreed on the need for campaign-finance reform, securing the U.S. border against illegal immigration, a strong response to ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq and travel restrictions between West Africa and the United States during the Ebola epidemic.
Nonetheless, they stuck to their basic themes: Southerland's that Graham is too liberal for the district; and Graham's that Southerland is too conservative for the district.
Southerland has argued that Graham would be a reliable vote for President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- all of whom he criticized Wednesday.
"I am not Nancy Pelosi," Graham replied. "Neither am I Barack Obama or Harry Reid. I am Gwen Graham." She also said that if elected, she would not support Pelosi for House speaker. "We need new leadership," she said. "Congress is broken."
By the same token, Graham has criticized Southerland -- who swept into office as a tea-party favorite in 2010 -- for being too partisan and voting for last year's government shutdown, which Graham contends was damaging to the district.
Southerland replied that he is friendly with House Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
"But those relationships don't fit the narrative that the mainstream media want to have about me," he said.
The candidates' sharpest disagreements concerned water and fishery issues in the district, which is reeling over a lack of fresh water flowing to Apalachicola Bay. That has damaged the critically important seafood industry.
Southerland, in listing his legislative successes, included the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. He praised a provision known as a "sense of Congress," which urged Florida, Georgia and Alabama to "reach agreement on an interstate water compact as soon as possible. Absent such action, the committees of jurisdiction should consider appropriate legislation to address these matters."
Graham has argued that the provision is nonbinding and said she would have pushed for an amendment "that would have given the downstream users on the Apalachicola River legal rights, because that's what Franklin County must have."