Cramer, Heitkamp turn rapid-fire debate into lively exchange

U.S. Senate candidates from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp, left, and Kevin Cramer joke during one of the lighter moments in their debate in Fargo, N.D., on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. Heitkamp, the Democratic senator, and Cramer, the Republican congressman, had lively discussions over health care, trade and social security in their second and last debate of the campaign. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Senate candidates Heidi Heitkamp and Kevin Cramer on Friday turned what was supposed to be a debate with rapid-fire questions into heated arguments about health care, Social Security and trade.

The hourlong event with a planned format of allowing 1 minute to answer a question and 30 seconds for rebuttal began with a question about civility that seemed to keep the candidates and crowd on an even-keel until they were asked about health care. Heitkamp, the Democratic senator who is trying to narrow a race in which Cramer is believed to have a healthy lead, accused her Republican opponent of trying to eliminate patient protections by voting five times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That started a lively 20-minute exchange that drew both cheers and boos from the crowd at North Dakota State University, often drowning out the comebacks by both candidates.

Cramer named a group of state Republican leaders who favor dumping the law to give more power to the states and said he’s “pretty sure that Heidi Heitkamp isn’t the smartest person out of that whole group.” Heitkamp cited hospital and medical associations who are opposed the Republican ideas and said they know better than politicians.

“Kevin, you have not explained why you have voted five times to repeal with no replacement,” Heitkamp said.

“Because rates are skyrocketing,” Cramer shot back.

“You are taking away protections on preexisting conditions,” Heitkamp said, at which time Cramer responded that those protections have been in place in North Dakota since the 1970s.

Heitkamp’s voice cracked when she made her last comment that ended the topic.

“This is such an important discussion,” she said. “The Affordable Care Act has good parts and bad parts. I have been working to fix the bad. You have been working to eliminate it for purely partisan reasons.”

The two also exchanged barbs over Social Security, when Cramer said he wants to “put everything on the table” in order to save a program that will go insolvent in 2034 if nothing is done. When Heitkamp responded that she will not put cuts for senior citizens on the table, Cramer accused her of being “in a Hail Mary mood.” The pair also quibbled on whether Cramer had used the word “entitlement” in regard to Social Security.

On trade, the two candidates continued to talk over each other on several occasions. Cramer said the administration understands that the dispute with China and others is “clearly a long-term play” and many farmers told him that new trade negotiations should have happened long ago.

“This president plays hardball, no doubt about it.” said Cramer, who said Heitkamp should stand with the United States instead of China.

“And you want to represent North Dakota you better stand with North Dakota farmers,” responded Heitkamp, who called the president’s policy dangerous and devastating.

Heitkamp joined the U.S. Senate in 2012 after beating Republican Rick Berg. Cramer was elected to the U.S. House three times, the first in 2012.

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