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N.H. GOP Senate Hopefuls Face Off Over Party Unity, the VA and More

The three major Republican candidates vying for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) Senate seat squared off on television together for the first time on Sunday.

In a forum described as “not a debate” on WMUR’s “CloseUP,” Scott Brown, Bob Smith and Jim Rubens offered their takes on Iraq, the Veterans Administration scandal, the economy and the unity of the Republican Party.

Rubens, a former state senator, quickly jumped on Brown’s record as a Massachusetts senator, accusing him of voting with President Obama 70 percent of the time.

Brown defended his record, saying he was “proud to have worked on important pieces of legislation” during his time in the Senate, lauding the Hire a Hero bill and a bill designed to prevent insider trading by members of Congress as examples. In turn, Brown questioned the loyalty of his opponents, referencing recent friction between Rubens, Smith, and the state’s Republican Party chairman, Jennifer Horn, over their opposition to signing a unity pledge.

The so-called “unity letter” was sent last week by Horn on behalf of the party. In it, Horn accused the duo of possibly supporting a Democrat or third-party candidate if they were to lose the primary to Brown.

Smith, a former U.S. senator, said the party owed it to the voters not to interfere with the primary process and accused Brown’s camp of pushing Horn to write the letter. Brown called the accusation “absolutely wrong.”

“It’s my understanding that’s not the case,” Smith said “I have sources … that tell me Sen. Brown’s campaign has colluded with the Republican Party in at the least the preparation of that letter.”

Smith promised he would investigate whether or not Brown’s camp had any part in the letter. He reasserted that signing the pledge would be “premature,” which was Rubens’ initial response to Horn. Rubens has since signed the letter, following Brown’s agreement to two additional debates. Brown said he would have agreed to the debates whether Rubens signed the pledge or not.

“There is time for unity,” Smith said. “Right now … we need to have the debates, we need to air it, we need people to hear our positions on the issues. I’m especially not going to sign it when it’s been prepared by the Brown campaign.”

Rubens called the letter an attempt by the national Republican Party to push him and Smith out of the race, thereby opening the door for Brown’s unchallenged nomination. He said that Brown is “so close to the Democrats” that New Hampshire voters needed the primary in order to have the best candidate to defeat Shaheen.

Smith boasted he has represented every plank of the Republican platform for 18 years and questioned Rubens’ credentials, asking about his support of public financing of elections.

“You want everyone in New Hampshire to pay for Nancy Pelosi’s campaign,” Smith said. “I don’t know how you can be a conservative and take that position.”

Smith’s party credentials did not go unexamined. In the 2004 presidential election he famously endorsed John Kerry, which he said was done “in anger.” Smith mentioned Brown’s Dodd-Frank vote, and Rubens jumped at the chance to confront that “deciding vote,” asking him to publicly apologize for voting yes on legislation that is “hurting the economy.”

“We were in a financial emergency,” Brown responded. “And to go down there and do nothing? … Since I left, there are certainly problems in our community. Our savings banks and our credit unions are being affected by regulations being put into place. I look forward to going back [to Washington] to fix that.”

The “hyper over-regulations” imposed under Dodd-Frank, Rubens says, are directly injurious to the economy and job creation. He said the regulations are not only shutting down community banks but also preventing first time homebuyers from purchasing homes, and thwarting small businesses from getting loans.

Despite Rubens’ state Senate experience and business acumen, both Smith and Brown are former U.S. senators with foreign policy experience – something that can’t be said about Rubens. With Iraq’s stability faltering, the economy may no longer be the top priority for the average New Hampshire voter, and Rubens was asked how he’d handle the crisis.

“We need to be honest about the situation in Iraq,” Rubens said. “What I think ought to be done is we ought to stop sending our brave young men and women to wars where U.S. national security is not at stake.”

Rubens then pointed directly at Brown, who sat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and accused him of “doing nothing” to prevent the problems that are currently haunting the VA, while soldiers are “coming home in boxes.”

Smith described Iraq as unwinnable if the U.S. is not prepared to “basically annihilate the entire population in the Middle East” and said that the U.S. needed to withdraw its troops.

“This is a war between tribes of people. It’s a cultural [and] religious war that has been going on for centuries,” Smith said. “They [Congress] do not have an exit strategy. We need to leave.”

Brown said the U.S. had already left the country and the real question is whether troops should be redeployed in the region. Brown said he has contacted Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, about whether the U.S. should have withdrawn when they did and if some forces should have stayed to ensure stability and give the government “legs to stand on.”

“I felt if we left abruptly we would be losing all of the gains we have made,” Brown said. “Now you have a situation where Sen. Shaheen is on the Foreign Relations Committee backing the president 100 percent of the time on his failed policies.”

Rubens alleged that the U.S. had supported ISIS when they offered military to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He agreed with Smith that the endgame of U.S. foreign policy was unclear and said the U.S. does have a war there — against terrorism — and instead of fighting the ground war, the U.S. needs to rely on technology and intelligence. Regardless of how the war is waged, Rubens wants to see the veterans better cared for when they return, calling their current treatment by the VA “unpardonable.”

The Office of the Inspector General is investigating reports that the department is responsible for long wait times to see doctors, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 veterans.

“All of the people that are responsible for this should be prosecuted,” Smith said about the scandal. “This goes to the moral core of who we are.”

He proposed a “gold card” that would allow veterans to use “any hospital, any time, any place.”

Brown said a “top-to-bottom” review was needed and that Shaheen needed to be “held responsible” for her failure to pay attention to detail when it came to veterans’ issues. He supported a plan that would give soldiers treatment anytime, anyplace.

“[Veterans] should have the ability to go to whatever hospital they want,” Brown said. “Have a money transfer between the VA and the individual hospital. We can do more.”

Brown and Rubens traded a heated exchange over Brown’s Senate ethics disclosure forms not being up-to-date. Brown said he was granted an extension due to two recent deaths in his family and an upcoming wedding, but had filed them by Sunday morning. He also announced that he was making available eight years of tax information for himself and his wife, Gail Huff, challenging Shaheen to do the same.

Smith explained he was “not prepared” to say whether he would release eight years of his own returns but would consider it.

The three candidates will have an opportunity to address each other next during debates with the Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council, on WGIR radio’s “New Hampshire Today” and during the televised Sept. 4 debate.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)