Fighting Words

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With the opening pleasantries barely out of their mouths, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson and Republican challenger Pete Ricketts wasted no time taking swipes at each other Sunday in their second debate before the Nov. 7 election.

Asked about how to control the spiraling costs of political campaigns, Nelson said he had to spend money to counter ads by Ricketts, who has poured millions from his personal fortune into his own campaign to pay for TV and radio spots.

"Most of those really dealt with attacking me," Nelson said

Ricketts countered that after their first debate, he took his ads mentioning Nelson off the air.

"You, on the other hand, continued to put out ads that were basically lies," Ricketts said.

Many of Nelson's ads have criticized Ricketts for supporting a national sales tax.

Ricketts stressed that he thinks the U.S. tax code needs to be reformed and that he has said all options, including a so-called national sales or consumption tax, need to be part of the debate.

"I will not be bullied by Ben Nelson or anyone else to take something off the table when I haven't had a chance to study it," Ricketts said, adding that Nelson was employing "just another scare tactic."

"It's really disappointing," Ricketts said. "That's one of the things that makes voters cynical."

Nelson said he had examples, including several newspaper articles, where Ricketts touted a national sales tax, which Nelson said would raise taxes on 95 percent of Nebraskans.

"My opponent has absolutely flirted with this from the very beginning," Nelson said. "He will not take it off the table. It needs to be off the table."

Later, Ricketts accused Nelson of being ineffective in the Senate.

"He's been there six years ... and he's introduced 52 bills -- not a single one has ever been written into the law," Ricketts said. "He ranks at the bottom of the scale" among senators who took office with Nelson in 2000

"That's why we need to have a new senator -- somebody who can be effective," Ricketts said.

Nelson countered that he has learned to work with colleagues to get things done.

One example, he said, came when the Senate was bogged down with partisan politics that had stalled the vote to confirm federal judges.

"I helped organize, with John McCain, the so-called Gang of 14 to break that," Nelson said. "Senator Robert Byrd, who went the United States Senate the very year I graduated from high school, 1959, came to me and said it was the most important ... move in all the years that he's been in the United States Senate. I think that speaks for itself."

On Social Security, Nelson said he wants to guarantee those benefits that people have already earned but allow people to perhaps put some of the money they pay into the system in 401K plans.

He accused Ricketts of advocating a privatization of the Social Security system, which Ricketts called an "outright lie."

"What I've said is Social Security personal accounts could be part of the solution," Ricketts said. "We cannot ... change any rules for anybody who's 45 years old or older."

Asked about how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, Ricketts said he supported establishing a program to verify who they are and have them apply to stay in the United States. He said he was against granting them amnesty.

Nelson said securing the border should be the top priority in dealing with immigration.

The two also differed over increasing the federal minimum wage.

The Senate recently rejected legislation that would have cut estate taxes and raised the hourly minimum wage to $7.25 from $5.15 over three years.

Nelson said he supports such an increase.

"I think it's important to move people ... to a higher level," Nelson said.

Ricketts said he opposes the idea of a "government-controlled economy."

"It generally ends up hurting the people its trying to help," he said, because businesses would hire fewer people and cut benefits.

Ricketts said he would support a minimum-wage increase if there was also a plan to help small businesses.

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