Sparks flew Tuesday at the first debate in an increasingly contentious race between Republican incumbent Steve Southerland and Democratic challenger Gwen Graham for a Northwest Florida congressional seat.
Supporters of both candidates cheered, gasped and groaned as the pair traded jabs before the Network of Entrepreneurs & Business Associates in Tallahassee.
The barbs began during opening statements, when Graham -- daughter of former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham -- vowed to break the gridlock in Congress, saying Southerland had played too adversarial a role in Washington.
"I heard Congressman Southerland's voice come over the radio, and he proudly proclaimed, 'I did not go to Washington to make friends,'" she said. "Well, friends, he has accomplished that goal -- and he has accomplished that goal at the expense of the people of North Florida."
Southerland, who was elected in the tea-party wave of 2010, blamed the gridlock in Washington on Democrats: President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"I think Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were doing pretty good at creating gridlock before we got there," Southerland said.
The debate, moderated by journalist Bill Cotterell, came amid a race that has drawn heavy attention from the national political parties. Democrats have targeted Congressional District 2, which includes 14 counties, as one of a relative handful of areas where they could pick up a Republican-held seat in November.
The district ranges 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.
Issues covered during the debate included the economy, national security, health care, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, military veterans, violence against women and campaign-finance reform.
On the Affordable Care Act, Graham said, "Democrats bit off far more than they could chew, and Republicans have voted over 54 times to return our health-care decisions to the hands of the insurance companies. Both got it wrong when they put in place Obamacare."
Southerland, who in 2010 beat seven-term Democratic Congressman Allen Boyd by running against Boyd's vote for the health-care law, said House Republicans had proposed plans that would put health care choices "back in the hands of the people.? The Republican proposals moving forward really make sure that no one will ever stand between you and your physician of choice."
On the question of raising the minimum wage, Southerland said, "We need to be focused, really, on how we're going to increase wages for all Americans.? If you look at what this president has done since he's been in office, he has hammered the middle class."
Graham said she would support "an incremental increase in the minimum wage so as not to hurt the businesses, but to do it slowly and then tie it to the rate of inflation so we no longer get back to a point where the minimum wage keeps people in poverty."
The candidates agreed only on the need for a bipartisan approach to campaign finance and that securing the U.S. border would be the top priority of a comprehensive immigration-reform policy.
They used the occasion to revisit previous sparring in the campaign, as when Cotterell asked Southerland why he had voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
Southerland said he'd supported an earlier version of the act. "I'm proud to support that bill," he said. "It was only when Harry Reid wanted to inject politics and use women -- not aid them -- as a political ploy that I said enough is enough. ?The fact is, I have supported this legislation."
"Congressman, that is just a lie," Graham replied. "He did not vote for the bill that was a bipartisan bill that ? passed the House, passed the Senate and was signed into law. You did not vote for the bill that is the law today.? I'm disappointed in you for that."
Offered a chance to rebut, Southerland did. "I can honestly say that the disappointment that Mrs. Graham has in me really means very little," he said. "What matters most is how you feel. And you know what? ? Over the past four years, I have gone to Washington, D.C., and I have fought for you, for a better future. You know that. You know me. And the reason you know me is because even if Gwen didn't grow up here, my family has been in this district for 200 years."
Graham didn't let that go by, either.
"I am proud of my North Florida heritage," she said. "I find it insulting that Congressman Southerland would question that. My grandmother was born in the Panhandle. My great-grandfather was one of the first licensed physicians. I have lived here all my life. I graduated from Leon High School in 1980. All of my children graduated ?" The rest of her remarks were drowned in cheers.
The only other debate currently scheduled between the candidates is Oct. 15 at the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee.