GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Republican John James on Sunday attacked Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, calling her an ineffective, lifelong politician who too often votes with her party, while Stabenow touted herself as a get-it-done policymaker and criticized James as a cheerleader for President Donald Trump's agenda.
Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth term and has led comfortably in polls, and James traded barbs in their first debate before the November election.
"She's a very nice lady. But in time, I believe that she's grown ineffective, she's grown hyperpartisan and she's lost a bit of credibility," said James, a business executive and combat veteran who hyped his leadership skills and repeatedly pointed to Stabenow's 43 years in elective office, nearly half in Washington. He accused her of not adequately addressing problems such as immigration reform, aging infrastructure and student loan debt.
Stabenow, in turn, noted "incredibly divisive" and "tough" times in the country's capital as one reason that voters should re-elect her during the televised debate at WGVU Public Media in Grand Rapids.
"This is not the moment for inexperience. This is the moment for folks that have relationships, that have the experience and the seniority and a proven track record against all the odds that they can get something done," she said, pointing to her bipartisan work to enact farm bills, protect the Great Lakes and - most recently - stop health insurers from prohibiting pharmacists from telling consumers when paying cash would be cheaper than using insurance for their prescriptions.
Stabenow cited James' support from and support for Trump, who has had low favorability and job approval ratings among likely Michigan voters.
"He says he's for President Trump's agenda 2,000 percent. I'm for Michigan 2,000 percent," she said.
James said he would work with anyone, from Trump to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to "get things done" as a senator, promising to stand up to the president as necessary. Responding to a question about the federal health care law, he said "both parties have failed the American people." He criticized Democrats because not everyone was able to keep their insurance plan or doctor and Republicans for campaigning against the law but having no plan to replace it.
He said he favors a "market-based, patient-centered" approach where people with pre-existing conditions are protected and patients and physicians are empowered - not the federal government and insurance companies. He accused Stabenow, who has accepted campaign donations from the pharmaceutical industry, of waiting until an election year to try to lower rising prescription drug costs.
"What took you so long? You had 16 years," James said in a refrain he used often in the debate.
Stabenow said health care is an area where there is a "very big difference" between the candidates. She said the health law provides a market-based, patient-centered system, and James stood "over and over again" with Trump and other Republicans who want to "gut" a system that covers people with pre-existing conditions.
"The reality is right now, what's being done - both the proposals supported by my political opponent, what the White House is doing with the rules - is putting health care back in the hands of insurance companies. Where they're going to be able to decide if you have a pre-existing condition, which is half the families in Michigan, are you going to be able to get covered and are you going to have to pay more? The chance that that is true is very, very high," Stabenow said.
James denied the allegations and accused Stabenow of advocating for a "full government takeover of your health care." Stabenow called his claim that she supports single-payer health care "ridiculous."
The two also clashed over the effect of U.S. tariffs on imported steel in Michigan, home to the domestic auto industry.
Stabenow said she is concerned about potential auto layoffs and soybean farmers, a prime target of China's retaliatory tariffs.
"I do support tough trade, I always have," she said while arguing that the White House's approach to tackling the North American Free Trade Agreement, tariffs and sanctions simultaneously has "created instability and uncertainty for every part of the Michigan economy."
James told Stabenow he loves "the selective support that you're offering our president." He said Trump accomplished "more in modernizing NAFTA and normalizing our relationship with the (European Union) in 20 months than you were able to in 20 years in Washington."
James also criticized Stabenow for voting against emergency funding for the Iraq War in 2007. Stabenow spokeswoman Miranda Margowsky said she has "always stood up" for service members and veterans, having voted to fund the military more than a 100 times and supporting a pay raise for troops every year she has been in the Senate.
The candidates will meet for their second, final debate on Monday at the Detroit Economic Club.
This story has been corrected to show that the station where the debate was held was WGVU, not GVSU.
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