For Bob Gardner, who attended Sunday afternoon's political forum at Temple Israel, the candidate who poses the biggest hurdle to Republican Steve Obsitnik, the Westport resident challenging U.S. Rep. Jim Himes for the 4th Congressional District seat, is not the Democratic incumbent.
"I didn't know anything about Obsitnik. He's a pretty reasonable-sounding guy until he talked about Linda, and then he lost me," Gardner, a retired advertising executive who lives in Weston, said after the 90-minute forum ended. "That blew my mind. I don't know how you get to that point."
Gardner said professional wrestling "was always phony, but it didn't hurt anybody." But, he added, "Under the McMahons, people died," referring to professional wrestlers.
During the forum, where Obsitnik and Himes spoke and responded to questions from the audience at separate times, Obsitnik said he supports McMahon's run for the Senate because she had "a good understanding of what the role of the government was in her life and what entrepreneurs need to survive and thrive."
Obsitnik added that McMahon, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Richard Blumenthal two years ago, had evolved as a candidate and is now "much stronger on the issues."
Himes and Obsitnik did not directly challenge each other during the forum, but made opening remarks for about 10 minutes and then fielded questions from the audience for about 45 minutes.
Questions touched on taxes, how to create jobs, abortion, Medicare and health care in general, the national deficit, the possibility of bipartisanship in the post-election congressional session, Iran's attempt to build a nuclear weapon, whether Obsitnik would sign a pledge not to raise taxes, and what advice Himes had for President Obama in his second debate against Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday night.
Himes recalled former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' answer to former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw's question about whether Dukakis would support capital punishment if Dukakis' wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis said he wouldn't and then gave a dispassionate argument against capital punishment.
"He made, I think, a mistake the president made the other night," Himes said, referring to Obama's subdued performance in his first debate with Romney two weeks ago. "To our reptilian brains, he was being asked the question, `Are you a man?' and he said, `No.' The president, I think, forgot he is our leader and we want to see fight. I don't know if we want to see as much fight as we saw with the vice president the other night, but we want to see fight."
Obsitnik, who spoke first, said he wouldn't sign a pledge not to raise taxes. He said the only two pledges he believes in are the pledges he took when he served in the U.S. Navy and when he married his wife. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't need any more pledges," he said. "That's not why you're sending me there and it could be counterintuitive to what this moderate area is all about."
Obsitnik, a Westport resident, also said he is pro-choice on abortion and does not in favor of eliminating federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
Himes said those positions are not easy for a Republican to take, but added, "Well, maybe not so hard in Connecticut."
Regarding Medicare, Obsitnik favors Romney's idea of leaving the program as it is for anyone at least 55 years old, but said he does not really like the idea of a voucher plan for people younger than 55. He said 10 percent to 15 percent of Medicare is waste and that he favors "bipartisan solutions" to eliminate that waste. He suggested the entitlement program be monitored for fraud in the way credit cards are.
Obsitnik said tort reform is needed because the potential of costly litigation forced doctors to practice defensive medicine. He said health-care savings accounts could bring down the rising cost of health care because people may not immediately see a doctor if, for example, they twisted an ankle.
Himes said he would not accept "a voucher or premium support -- call it what you want." He said the problem is the voucher amount would grow based on the consumer price index, while the cost of health care grows by much more than that. He said he supports tort reform and the idea of monitoring fraud like credit companies do.
Himes, a Greenwich resident seeking a third term, said the problem with Medicare is that health-care providers are paid "by how much stuff they do, not by how good or efficient they are," and that most consumers don't feel the cost of what they do. He suggested an experimental model in which doctors are told they'll receive $1 million for 3,000 patients. That would encourage doctors to look more toward preventative medicine and discourage unnecessary tests, Himes said.
Regarding foreign policy, Obsitnik said sanctions against Iran to discourage its development of nuclear weapons are having an impact but could be tighter. "My approach is to work closely with Iran so we know where the red line is together," he said, adding that the flow of accurate information is "so critical" when it comes to determining how far along Iran is in building a nuclear weapon.
Himes said the sanctions have not been successful and won't be "until it is very clear Iran has stopped building a nuclear device." Iran's "economy is badly damaged, and I think, as Mr. Obsitnik said, we need to continue to turn the screws as much as we can," he said. The congressman added he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran and would vote for military action if he's convinced Iran is at that stage. He said he was not in favor of a "red line" being declared publicly because that might encourage Iran to falsely say the line's been crossed for political reasons.
Obsitnik said national policy regarding Iran and the U.S. military are two areas where bipartisanship should be possible. He said money can be saved in the Pentagon's budget and that everyone should agree not to leave U.S. troops in harm's way without a clear mission. "If there is no mission, bring our kids back home," he said.
Himes said bipartisanship will be necessary on the federal budget because of the automatic cuts and tax increases that take effect Jan. 1 if Congress can't agree on how to get the deficit under control. "If we allow the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that kick in New Year's Eve, we go back into recession," he said. "That cannot happen." Himes said the automatic spending cuts were "never designed to be smart cuts," but were meant to be "hammers" over a congressional "super committee" that later failed to reach agreement on reducing the deficit.
Himes said Congress is "almost unanimous" behind "the proposition Israel is not just an ally, but a friend and co-equal" and that energy, national security and education are also areas where bipartisanship should be possible.
Obsitnik said the nation's fiscal problems will be compounded if the economy doesn't come back. He indicated it wouldn't come back by stimulus spending and "government pushing money out in certain industries that central planners think will work," but rather by regulatory and tax reform, teaching workers new skills and access to capital.
Himes took exception to a TV ad supporting Obsitnik in which Himes is shown saying he's proud of his record while statements about the economy and deficit appear on the screen. Himes said the ad presents his record out of context and that he is proud of some of the work he's done.
Himes also took exception to what he said was Obsitnik's claim that Himes was "guilty of dereliction of duty." "That's actually a crime," he said. "Let's keep the tone civil."
Obsitnik told the gathering he wouldn't serve more than four terms if elected. "I don't want to climb a political ladder and reach a leadership position," he said. "If the president has the right answer for Connecticut, I will vote with President Obama."