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Candidates clash at spirited Billings debate

Candidates clash at spirited Billings debate

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BILLINGS - U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., and his Democratic challenger Robert L. "Dusty" Deschamps squared off in often raucous debate Monday night, each candidate contending that he is better suited to lead Montana to economic prosperity.

In their third debate in the last week, the two candidates differed on several issues, from gun control to school vouchers.

About 300 people attended the debate, sponsored by the Billings Gazette.

Although the candidates answered questions from a of panel journalists during most of the debate, their queries of each other often elicited the most lively responses.

Deschamps has centered much of his campaign on Montana's dead-last ranking for an average earned income in the nation, a ranking that he said has worsened since Hill joined the Congress two years ago.

Hill wanted to know specifically what Deschamps would do differently than he had.

That prompted Deschamps, a longtime Missoula County attorney, to remark that Hill hadn't been working hard enough for Montanans.

"You, Rick, have been less than aggressive in that area," Deschamps charged.

For instance, he faulted Hill for not seeking an appointment to the House Committee on Agriculture, a position Deschamps said would be vital for the state. During a recent trip to Washington, Deschamps said he was told that he had a spot on the committee if he were elected.

"That's how you do things, Rick," Deschamps told his foe. "You don't wait around."

Hill countered that he had worked for Montanans, and although he wasn't on the agriculture committee, he said he had accomplished much for the industry.

Hill said he has served the state well on other committees, such as small business and banking, that are vital to the Montana economy.

Hill also noted that his re-election effort is endorsed by many agricultural groups.

"I was able to work for them, and I didn't have to be on the agricultural committee to do it," Hill said.

Hill said that Deschamps was big on ideas, but "hadn't brought specifics to the table."

During his term, Hill said he has done much for the state's economy. For example, he said he had fought for tourism by adding funding for improvements to the Beartooth Highway and to bring attention to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

"The only person standing up here that's created jobs is me," Hill told Deschamps. "And you don't get that done by complaining."For his question to Hill, Deschamps wanted to know why Hill's office continued to send out free mailings to Montana voters, which he called "flashy, full-color stuff."

He said that Hill at one time had argued against such mailings, called franking.

Hill said he hadn't changed his position and had tried unsuccessfully to reform franking laws. He said he is "abiding by the law as it is."

Deschamps countered that Hill was not informing his constituents, but instead was playing politics.

"It's pushing the law to the limit," Deschamps said.

The two candidates opened their series of debates in Great Falls and Bozeman last week. Their final debate is Wednesday in Missoula.

Nick Ehli write for the Billings Gazette

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