It was a tag-team fight at last night's gubernatorial debate in Tucson, pitting the field against Democratic front-runner Janet Napolitano.
In a candidate forum co-sponsored by the Tucson Citizen and the Goldwater Institute, Republican Matt Salmon, independent Richard Mahoney and Libertarian Barry Hess pointed fingers at Napolitano for not coming clean with voters, and they said she'll raise taxes if elected.
Hess even labeled Napolitano "a socialist" and compared her to a communist official in the former Soviet Union. Salmon was content to call her "a liberal."
Napolitano took the attacks as a compliment, suggesting it confirms she is leading the race, as polls are showing.
Napolitano said that during Tucson primary debates, "my Democratic opponents accused me of being too Republican. Now I get to see the other side. You learn to live with that if you are as I am, a no-nonsense, common-sense person."
About 450 people attended the two-hour debate at the Marriott University Park hotel, 880 E. Second St.
Salmon charged his rival with flip-flopping on issues.
"Janet, the reason I accused you of saying one thing in the primary and another in the general is because your story changes every day," he said.
Salmon cited several newspaper articles quoting Napolitano saying "We're going to look at everything" in terms of raising revenue.
"The fact is, Janet, it's time for you to be straight with the voters and tell them that you are going to increase their income taxes," he said.
Mahoney also leaped into the fray, saying Napolitano is being unrealistic about not raising taxes, given her reluctance to make cuts.
"It is inevitable that you'll raise taxes - income taxes - because you've come up with $1.4 million in cuts out of a $1.4 billion budget (deficit)," he said.
Napolitano said her opponents bash her plan because they haven't bothered to check it out.
"I have a budget and economic development plan. These three guys can talk about it, but I don't think they've read it. Because if they had read it, they'd know that my numbers add up. They can see that I have a plan that doesn't raise income taxes, that doesn't cut education, but has a balanced approach," she said.
Salmon criticized Napolitano for her plan to do away with business tax breaks, which she says will boost the tax base. Salmon said those exemptions allow small businesses to survive, providing jobs that drive Arizona's economy.
Her opponents, Napolitano said, fail to acknowledge that all areas of the budget have to be considered to bring it back to equilibrium.
"If we aren't frank with ourselves and say the whole budget needs to be looked at, we will never be able to reduce taxes to stimulate investment," she said. "That's why loopholes need to be closed so the overall tax rate can come down."
When the candidates were asked about their proposals for lowering prescription drug costs, Salmon suggested drugs should be "reimported" from Mexico, where they are sold more cheaply than in the United States.
"We have NAFTA. Why don't we work out a trade agreement with Mexico?" he asked. "It'll make the pharmaceutical companies mad, and then they'll bring down prices."
Hess derided Salmon's suggestion, saying it made as much sense for the governor to open a bus line to and from Mexico.
"We need to look at why drugs are so much cheaper there," said Hess. "We need to eliminate needless government regulations and increase competition."
Mahoney called drug manufacturers "the real drug cartels" and threatened to sue them for conspiring to keep prices artificially high.
Napolitano said AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's health-care program for the indigent), should use its bargaining power to buy prescription drugs in bulk to reduce the costs for the poor and elderly.
Napolitano criticized Salmon's record as a congressman and his plan for the governor's office, saying his budget proposal comes up $400 million short, that he gives special tax status to telemarketers, and he voted against more spending for universities, health care and a patient's bill of rights.
Salmon characterized Napolitano as being too far to the left.
"I've known a lot of people in politics. I've worked with a lot of people back in Washington, and I've worked with a lot of people in the state Legislature. I've been able to work with conservatives and liberals and moderates, and I've got to tell you, you are one of the most liberal people I've ever worked with."
A voice from the audience shouted: "Stay liberal, Janet!"
STRONG WORDS, HIGH TIMES AND FAST SPIN: NOTABLE MOMENTS FROM THE DEBATE
Matt Salmon landed a haymaker after Janet Napolitano said she wouldn't impose an income tax boost. "The reason they accuse you of one thing in the primary and something else in the general (election) is because your story changes every day." He then cited a series of newspaper articles quoting Napolitano considering such a tax increase.
Napolitano energized her crowd when she attacked Salmon's fund raising: "I'm running as a clean elections candidate. I got to tell you, compared to running the old-fashioned way, the way Matt's running now, this is so much better. Rather than (attending) $100-a-plate or $200-a-plate dinners, ponying up to whatever lobbyist is out there, I'm spending my time with the voters."
No real mistakes, but moderator Darcy Olsen, executive director of the Goldwater Institute, introduced Salmon as "the candidate for governess."
Libertarian Barry Hess pitched perfect comedic timing a few times. His most memorable line came when he was asked about a ballot proposition to decriminalize marijuana: "Let me fire up a fatty, and we'll talk about it."
Hess: "Government bad. People good."
Dick Mahoney, arguing for a death penalty moratorium: "We're killing the wrong people and saying it's the right thing to do."
Fastest spin team:
Napolitano's troops were handing rebuttals of Salmon's attacks to reporters moments after the debate.