UPDATED 6/14/2012 10:30 a.m.

Kahului, Maui — Ed Case and Mazie Hirono are both vowing to protect Social Security and Medicare if elected to the U.S. Senate.

Both oppose privatization of Medicare, or offering vouchers to buy plans from private insurers. Both oppose extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Both want to help improve access to doctors in rural Hawaii. Both approve of health-care exchanges and are proud of the state’s Pre-Paid Healthcare Act of 1974.

All that should come as no surprise, given that the debate, held at the Maui Beach Hotel, was sponsored by AARP Hawaii, the premiere advocacy group for those over 50. The audience of about 150 included many gray hairs and balding heads.

Indeed, federal entitlements took up most of the questioning during the one-hour forum, which also delved into related issues like insurance and personal savings.

What the debate revealed in some cases, though, is different approaches to Social Security and Medicare, which are not fiscally sustainable under current funding levels and population projections.

Hirono, for example, opposes raising the retirement age to help fund Social Security, but Case says the idea should be considered. People are living longer, and it is not unreasonable for people in their 20s and 30s today to expect a later retirement age, he said.

And the debate revealed the differences in style between the candidates, no small matter in a small state where voters want to be sure of who they are electing to high office.

Generally speaking, Hirono seemed to rely more on tried-and-true soundbites, like health care being a right, not a privilege. She brought up familiar GOP bogeymen like the richest 2 percent and the oil companies that are getting huge subsidies. And she made clear that she is personally invested in looking out for Hawaii’s kupuna.

When she noted that her 88-year-old mother still lived with her and that her grandmother lived to be 98 — “I’m probably going to live a long time, too” — it was obvious she knew her audience well.

In short, Hirono appealed directly to a group of voters that may well represent the most powerful voting bloc in the state — about 150,000 people, by the estimate of Barbara Kim Stanton, AARP Hawaii’s executive director.

Case seemed to offer more thoughtful answers to some questions, like the need to work on physician reimbursements to keep doctors in rural areas, or the need to have means testing for Medicare (“We can’t have government subsidize the wealthy”). He also stressed that entitlement issues cannot be solved easily and require frank, honest talk from leaders.

“We have to make some tough, unpopular decisions, and one has to do with retirment age,” said Case.

In short, Case knew his audience, too, but chose not to sugarcoat the road ahead.

This was Round 2 for the Democratic primary debates. I’d call it a draw.

Round 1 was the tourism forum on May 29. On Maui, Case earned points for preparation and soberness and Hirono demonstrated an appealing personality and good sense of humor.

Other Observations

Here’s a quick rundown of other items of interest from the AARP Hawaii debate.

Her greatest achievement in Congress according to Hirono: Listening to constituents and having a collaborative style of leadership.

His greatest achievement in Congress according to Case: Holding 172 talk story sessions in his district and working to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Sharpest difference between candidates according to Hirono: Values, commitment, collaborative style of leadership.

Sharpest difference between candidates according to Case: Case said he could not identify them because Hirono has not adequately explained her record, agenda or beliefs. This elicited several loud groans from the audience, presumably Hirono supporters.

One thing they both like: President Obama’s health care reform law, now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

One thing they both hate: Crystal methamphetamine.

Amount of time into the debate that it took for Hirono to mention her mother: Only a few minutes.

Amount of time into the debate that it took for Case to mention his wife, Audrey: Only a few minutes.

Words most repeated by Hirono: “Values” and “commitment.”

Words most repeated by Case: “Generation” and “generations.”

Best exchange in the debate:

Case: Mazie, hello — it’s nice to have a discussion with you.

Hirono: I’m having a lovely time.

Case: Let’s go out to lunch afterwards.

Hirono: You pay.

Case: You’ve got more money.


Odd format decision: Most questions first went to Hirono, a departure from the usual rotating of questions common in debates. I think this was unfair to Hirono, as it allowed Case to tailor his responses. Debate moderator Gerald Kato, the University of Hawaii journalism professor, explained to me later that the decision was made by the AARP.1

Honolulu media in attendance: KHON, KITV, Hawaii News Now, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and me, who flew over from Honolulu. That underscores just how important this race is.

Seen in the audience: Mufi Hannemann, the Democrat running for the U.S. Congress; Maui County Democratic Party leader Lance Holter; Jonathan Starr, the Maui Democrat appointed by the governor to the Commission on Water Resource Management; former Republican legislator Fred Rohlfing; former Hawaiian Airlines executive Al Hoffman, a Case supporter; and Hirono’s husband, Leighton Kim Oshima.

Raffle ticket prize: A copy of “Social Security for Dummies” and gift cards for Longs Drugs.

Next up: Rounds 3 and 4 between Case and Hirono:

• Hawaii Public Radio, 7-8 p.m., on Wednesday;

• PBS Hawaii “Insights,” 8-9 p.m., on Thursday.

Still unclear: Whether there will be a fifth and final round, sponsored by Oahu Democrats.

About the Author