In their first debate before a large audience this election, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa repeatedly questioned challenger Charles Djou‘s voting record when he briefly represented Hawaii in Washington, D.C.

One of those votes, said Hanabusa, was against funding billions of dollars for military programs including construction projects in Hawaii and support for veterans.

Djou, who served a six-month tour in Afghanistan that ended in March, rejected any allegation that he did not care about his fellow service members.

“I’ve served our country, I’ve seen the very best and worst of humanity,” said Djou. “I have seen the selfless sacrifice made by so many of our veterans.”

But Hanabusa said she wasn’t questioning Djou’s loyalty or patriotism, noting the vote came before Djou was sent to a war zone.

“I still want an answer,” she said to Djou. “Was there something in the bill you did not like?”

Djou finally said that just because he wants to reduce government funding doesn’t mean he doesn’t support important programs. He tried to brush off Hanabusa’s question as an example of the “inside baseball” that goes on in Congress.

Maybe so, but it also represented the scoring of debate points for Hanabusa. After all, Djou is making his military service a centerpiece of his campaign, and Hanabusa made it seem as if he couldn’t explain not giving veterans government support.

The debate was sponsored by Hawaii Public Radio and broadcast live on HPR-2 (KIPO, KIPM, KIPH). HPR Political Reporter Wayne Yoshioka moderated.

Civil Beat notes other highlights from the debate.

Rebuttal After Rebuttal

The radio debate was the first public appearance of the two candidates available to a wide audience.

They are also scheduled to appear on Dan Boylan’s PBS Hawaii show Oct. 25 and, if it can be arranged, on local network television.

Though the debate started slowly, with Hanabusa and Djou both sounding a little nervous, things picked up soon enough, thanks to Yoshioka allowing multiple rebuttals for the candidates — something almost never allowed in most debates, let alone ones with a limited live broadcast time.

Such a format can be advantageous when a question plays to a candidate’s strengths. But it can also hurt when a candidate appears trapped, as Djou did when Hanabusa brought up the military funding vote.

A similar situation arose when Hanabusa brought up another Djou vote also during the lame-duck session of 2010, when Djou served out the remainder of his term. This vote had to do with taxes and unemployment benefits.

Hanabusa said Djou at first voted against extending tax cuts for the middle class and extending unemployment insurance funding — until the so-called Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were added to the deal.

“Why?” asked Hanabusa.

Djou handled this question a little better — “We can talk about bills ad nauseum,” he said, meaning they should in fact not do that — and explaining that his vote was related to his longstanding opposition to unfairly burdening Americans with high taxes.

But Hanabusa had scored again, making Djou look inconsistent when it comes to voting on tax policy and favoring the rich over the middle class.

When Hanabusa proceeded to tie this vote back to the one on military funding, Djou again expressed umbrage over “allegations or innuendo” that somehow he did not care for veterans.

Djou more then held his own, however, and he scored some debating points, too.

He did not lose his cool under the repeated questioning, for example, and managed to frequently use the debate questions to underscore his main argument: that he and Hanabusa have clear philosophical differences, i.e., Hanabusa believes more government is the solution while Djou believes Americans are the solution.

The debate lasted only an hour, and, while endless rebuttal made for healthy, even dramatic exchanges, it meant there wasn’t time for other topics — like energy, education, foreign policy and social issues, to name just a few major ones.

But the candidates did talk about protecting entitlements and about bringing down the deficit and debt, areas that also showed clear differences between the two — largely along party lines — but also some areas of agreement, like over parts of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Yoshioka also managed to ask a topical question on everyone’s mind — the Stevie Wonder fiasco at the University of Hawaii Athletics Department.

Hanabusa expressed confidence that her former colleagues in the Legislature would get to the bottom of things, while Djou said the concert matter was an example of precisely what’s wrong in government: people not taking responsibility for their actions and being held accountable.

The last time the public got to see Djou and Hanabusa go at it, he was a congressman and she was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for the job. Now the tables are reversed, and there has been talk around the state that Djou is merely going through the motions and waiting for a run for higher office (governor or U.S. senator) down the road.

Perhaps that’s the case. But another thing the HPR debate showed is that Hanabusa and Djou care very much about Hawaii and serving their country in Washington.

But only one of them will have the privilege to serve after Nov. 6.

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