DALLAS (AP) â€” In a stark contrast to their last debate, the rivals for Texas' open U.S. Senate seat stayed calm and civil Friday night, agreeing almost as much as they clashed during their second and final debate ahead of next month's election.
Republican Ted Cruz vowed not to raise taxes under any circumstances but also pledged to slash the national debt by closing tax loopholes and encouraging economic growth. Democrat Paul Sadler said "shared sacrifice" was the only way to pay down the debt.
"I don't like the idea of pitting one American against another. I don't think that's good policy," said Sadler, a former state lawmaker. "If you want to raise taxes, I'm not afraid of that."
Cruz, when pressed about federal plans that may increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, said answered: "I think if we raise taxes, it will kill jobs." But the former state solicitor general and tea party favorite also maintained that the country could grow its way out of debt by adhering to free-market policies.
"If we can get growth up to historical levels, that's how we raise revenue," he said during the debate at the studios of KERA, the PBS television station in Dallas.
On a subsequent question about health care, Sadler criticized Cruz for repeatedly blaming Democrats during the debate.
"You want to know what's wrong with this country? We spend so much time blaming each other," Sadler said. "We can talk civil to each other and we can find bipartisan solutions if we want to, but you've got to send the right people to Washington."
But that was a rare moment of contention during what was otherwise a low-wattage debate.
At one point Cruz, whose father fled Cuba before Fidel Castro took power, said he wouldn't lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba if the island remains a dictatorship. Sadler responded: "I agree with him. I do, and I'm just going to say that."
Asked after the debate about its gentler tone, Sadler said some people "probably tuned in to watch the fireworks and instead they got a debate."
In their first debate less than three weeks ago, Sadler called Cruz a "troll," and the pair verbally sparred with such fury that it was often hard to hear, much less understand, either candidate.
Part of the reason was the format. On Friday, the candidates sat next to each other, and the back-and-forth was interrupted twice to allow each of them one minute to appeal directly to voters on why they would make a strong senator and to elaborate on an experience that showed their true character.
Cruz talked about his time arguing cases on Texas' behalf before the U.S. Supreme Court as solicitor general. Sadler discussed his son, who was 10 when he fell into a comma for nearly four days following a traffic accident; the incident prompted Sadler to leave the Texas House, where he served from 1991 until 2003.
The two are vying to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. A Democrat has not won statewide office in deeply conservative Texas since 1994, and Cruz has led in polls by a wide margin.
Cruz himself was a serious underdog during the Republican primary race against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has controlled the powerful Texas Senate since 2003. But championed by grassroots groups and tea party activists, Cruz was able to embrace a conservative, anti-establishment mantra and won a July runoff election by nearly 14 percentage points.
Now he's the prohibitive favorite and has even mended fences with traditional Republicans, attending fundraisers with Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry, who was the lieutenant governor's most high-profile backer during the bitter primary campaign.
Cruz said Friday that it was important to protect Social Security and Medicare, saying President Barack Obama's administration and Democrats in Congress were doing nothing while both programs "are careening toward insolvency." He added, though, that it was important to "reform the system so that it's there for younger people."
Sadler said relatively easy fixes would ensure that entitlement programs stay solvent but that GOP-backed voucher programs were unnecessary.
Cruz has said he only agreed to two debates to avoid giving Sadler any additional free television time. Cruz has raised 10 times as much money as Sadler, who can't afford television commercials.
Friday night's debate was held as many Texans were out watching high school football.
Given his struggles for attention in the race, Sadler has said he would try to paint Cruz as an extremist. But he said after the debate that he showed he could do that without throwing so many verbal jabs.
"The difference is, I'm going to tell you the truth," Sadler said. "And he's misleading the voters."
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