U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack shake hands following their final debate in Mason City Tuesday.  Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack shake hands following their final debate in Mason City Tuesday.  Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MASON CITY — Near the end of the seventh and final 4th Congressional District debate Tuesday night, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack fielded what at first blush seemed to be an eye-rollingly silly question, a groaner of a time-waster. But it turned out to be revealing.

What’s the nicest thing you can say about your opponent in the race?

“He obviously has a very strong feeling about his own children and his family as he talks about his grandchildren,” said Vilsack, first to answer based on the rotation of questions. “That is certainly a value that we would share.”

King took a different approach.

“I was hoping to have 60 or 90 seconds to think that over,” King said. “It was easier to say nice things before this campaign started.”

That considered, King said he had “zero animosity” toward either Christie Vilsack, or her husband, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who was seated 20 feet away in the front row of an auditorium at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. King also said to Christie Vilsack, “As a first lady, you’re a nice first lady.”

The two candidates, now in the homestretch of a consistently contentious campaign met on stage for 90 minutes in a debate organized by The Mason City Globe-Gazette, KGLO Radio, KIMT TV and the Mason City-based community college. The new 4th District is a sweep of 39 counties running from the Missouri River well into central Iowa.

Amid the palpable animosity the two candidates did agree on two decidedly rural issues that had not been raised in previous debates. Both support the continuation of essential commercial air service into Fort Dodge and Mason City, mid-sized cities that serve as regional Iowa hubs. King and Vilsack also pledged to fight to keep open as many rural post offices as possible with King saying he would be interested in seeing studies and numbers about using convenience stores and other small-town businesses for postal services in some cases — something U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has talked about as well.

The key foreign-policy question to emerge in the debate centered on Iran and that nation’s potential to obtain a nuclear threat.

“Iran cannot be counted on to act in a rational way,” King said.

King said his advice for the president after the election, whomever it is, would be to work a back channel with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving him a date at which the United States and its allies would disable a developing nuclear program. The United States, King said, should use such a behind-the-scenes, diplomatic matter to assist Iran in abandoning a military nuclear program in a way that would save face for its leaders on the international stage.

“The military option is a last resort,” King said.

Vilsack said she would support a military option if other efforts fail, and expected such action would involve U.S. allies.

“I would certainly be willing to strike Iran,” Vilsack said. “Certainly, whenever we do anything like that we need to go in with allies, and we need to go in with Israel certainly.”

As in past debates, King and Vilsack clashed on immigration. King said he strongly opposed recommendations coming from a bipartisan advisory council put together in the late 1990s by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack that suggested immigration was the primary answer to rural Iowa’s population-loss issues.

“I was not one of those that supported the idea that Iowa should be the Ellis Island to waive immigration laws,” King said, referencing a high-profile New York Times story that referred to the Iowa plan as a Midwestern version of the famous Eastern entryway for immigration a century ago.

King said that “people follow money” and Iowa’s generally solid economy is attracting needed employees.

Vilsack stressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and said she’s spoken with farmers of the 4th District who see immigration as vital for their workforces.

“They have asked Congressman King to moderate his rhetoric in dealing and speaking about the immigrants who live here because they think that they’re really important to the economic security of this district,” Vilsack said.

In July 2006 King went to the U.S. House floor to display the model of a wall he said he personally designed for the U.S. border with Mexico.

“We need to do a few other things on top of that wall, and one of them being to put a little bit of wire on top here to provide a disincentive for people to climb over the top or put a ladder there,” King said in explaining his design on the House floor. “We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that would not kill somebody, but it would be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time.”

Vilsack said such comments are abhorrent to Iowans and damage the image of the state.

“I think that it is disrespectful that Congressman King has used the language that he’s used,” Vilsack said. “What must people think about us around the country when they hear him talking about immigrants as if they are animals, and talking about an electric fence between the United States and Mexico.”

She said the absence of immigration reform is a failure of the Congress that King has been a part of for the past decade.

King said Vilsack is taking her marching orders from the professional left.

“I think it’s become pretty clear that Christie Vilsack reads all the left-wing websites and believes them all,” King said. “There’s not an original quote that’s come out of her mouth about what I’ve said.”

Immigration is about the rule of law, King said.

“One of the essential pillars of American Exceptionalism is the rule of law, and I will defend that,” King said.

The two candidates were asked specifically whether abortions should be legal in cases of rape.

“Congressman King, I don’t know how you could look a 14-year-old girl in the eye and say she doesn’t have a choice if she’s the victim of rape and incest,” Vilsack said.

King said he holds a deep philosophical and theological position in opposition to abortion that is in line with a significant portion of Iowans.

“Do you believe that human life is sacred in all its forms? I do,” King said. “The next question is: At what moment does life begin? You have to pick a moment.”

Life, in King’s view, begins at conception, he said.

King said the discussion about abortion in the context of rape is in reality an issue of whether the government should compel taxpayers to finance abortions.

“I think it’s wrong for us to do that, and I think that we should un-fund Planned Parenthood,” King said. The congressman did not offer any exceptions for legal abortions should the procedure ever be generally prohibited again.  

Vilsack said she’s spent much of her public life working to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.”

In closing cases, King said he was a constitutional conservative who could be counted on to focus on the debt.

“You don’t send spenders to Washington, D.C., when you’ve got a spending problem,” King said.

Vilsack, stressing her most consistent theme, said voters should consider temperament when electing a representative.

“He (King) uses emotional issues like immigration and family planning to divide us,” Vilsack said.

Phyllis Peters of Ames, a Glidden native who has long been active in Iowa Democratic politics, attended the Mason City debate. She believes Vilsack delivered her best material of the debate sessions.

“She was more concise and strong,” Peters said. “I think she got under his skin because he was a very agitated man.”

Dorothy Devary of Garner, a King supporter, said she was “very pleased” with his evening.

“He knows the issues inside and out, and he’s a very trustworthy man, I believe,” Devary said. “I think he did well on every issue that was brought before him.”