John Cornyn Rick Noriega.jpg

HOUSTON (AP) – U.S. Senate candidates Rick Noriega and John Cornyn clashed over the economic bailout, immigration and health care Thursday night in a rapid-fire televised debate.

Noriega, a Houston Democratic legislator, mentioned several times his service in the Army National Guard, while Cornyn, a first-term Republican senator, said he’s not pleased with the ways of Washington and that he’s trying to inject Texas sense into the place.

The two squared off right away over the $700 billion economic bailout bill. Noriega said he did not support the rescue package, which Cornyn voted for last week, and that the people who got the country into its financial trouble should be brought to justice.

“Quite frankly we need to see people go to jail who got us into this mess,” Noriega said. He repeated his criticism of Cornyn for accepting almost $4 million in campaign donations from people in the financial services industries. Cornyn’s campaign has said that much of that money comes from people with small businesses.

Cornyn agreed that those responsible for the economic troubles should be held accountable, but he said leaders need to take action.

“Strong leadership means you have to act in a time of crisis and not stand there,” he said. Cornyn said the bailout plan that he voted for included help for victims of Hurricane Ike and other measures to help average Americans.

The candidates staked notably different ground on immigration.

Noriega criticized Cornyn’s votes for the fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and claimed that Cornyn didn’t want to really solve immigration problems. He said a past proposal by Cornyn to send illegal immigrants back to their home country temporarily is an “unworkable solution.” The measure failed.

Cornyn said he supports comprehensive immigration reform, including rules that would require those in the U.S. illegally to return home before trying to re-enter the United States legally.

“We’ve got to have border security. We’ve got to have an enforceable system that eliminates document fraud and identity theft,” Cornyn said.

Children’s health insurance – a long-running contentious issue in the Senate campaign – arose in the debate.

Cornyn alleged Noriega, as a member of the Texas House, hadn’t seen to it that 800,000 eligible Texas children get enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Cornyn has said eligible children need to get enrolled before it’s decided whether to expand CHIP.

Noriega, who has faulted Cornyn repeatedly for voting against expanding CHIP, said Cornyn is misrepresenting the facts and that the Republican leadership in the Texas House is to blame for not getting more children covered by government-run health insurance plans.

Noriega said Cornyn is beholden to insurance companies who donate money to his campaign.

Cornyn responded, “I was looking over to see whether his nose was growing while he was speaking.”

Libertarian Yvonne Adams-Schick joined in the debate. She spoke up several times for smaller government and for firmly protecting constitutional rights.

Discussing First Amendment rights, Noriega spoke in favor of a reporter’s shield law that would protect certain confidential sources of journalists. He chastised Cornyn for not supporting one.

Cornyn said after the debate that he is trying to work on a solution to the shield law question, but he said he worries about the government deciding who qualifies as a journalist and who doesn’t.

Earlier in the day, Noriega launched his first television ad of the general election season.

Titled “Fed Up,” the ad was running in a number of markets throughout the state, the Noriega campaign said, though it wouldn’t provide financial details of the ad buy. In the commercial Noriega says families have lost their homes and their savings and that it’s time for a new kind of senator.

“Like you I’m fed up with Washington politicians who work day and night to bail out special interests, but ignore Texas families,” Noriega said in the ad. “John Cornyn has failed Texas families. It’s time for a change and a new kind of senator.”

Cornyn spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said it was “very unusual for a candidate to introduce himself with an attack ad.”

“It’s a sure sign of desperation,” McLaughlin said. “And we’re confident Texans will see this for what it is: empty rhetoric lacking solutions.”

Cornyn, meanwhile, unveiled yet another ad. This one focuses on energy policy. Cornyn decries the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and suggests new domestic sources can be found.

However, Noriega’s campaign said Cornyn hasn’t backed up those words with his Senate actions and that on several occasions he has opposed incentives for renewable energy development. Cornyn noted that such incentives were part of the economic bailout plant.

The debate was sponsored by Houston PBS and the League of Women Voters.

The final Senate debate is next week in Dallas.

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