With less than a week until the Nov. 2 election, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, and his opponent, state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, ratcheted up their campaign rhetoric by trading sharp attacks during a Sunday debate in Wilton.

As in their earlier debates in the closely watched 4th Congressional District race, the federal stimulus bill, health-care reform and fiscal policy emerged as the principal points of contention.

In defending his vote for the 2009 stimulus bill, Himes argued that it had prevented the American economy from falling into a depression.

"It was part of getting us to where we are today, where the economy is now growing," the freshman Democrat said. "We are now adding jobs in the private sector for nine straight months."

Debicella, 36, countered that the stimulus focused too much on saving the jobs of "government bureaucrats" and that it failed to produce true economic recovery in the private sector.

"All this did was build up an unsustainable deficit for our children," he said.

During the 90-minute debate at Wilton High School, sponsored by several local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the candidates offered contrasting visions of the role of government, particularly at the federal level.

Debicella, in particular, framed the election as not just a choice between the two candidates, but as a referendum on the performance of the current U.S. Congress.

"If you agree that Washington is getting it right, then vote for Jim Himes," he said. "He's voted over 94 percent of the time with [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi."

Himes similarly lambasted his opponent for his voting record, stating repeatedly that Debicella had the worst voting record on environmental issues of any Connecticut state senator during the last 10 years.

"To say I'm the worst senator on the environment? Jim, you'll just say anything to be re-elected," Debicella replied.

The candidates also squabbled over campaign contributions, with each contending that the other had received money from special-interest groups.

The influence of former 4th District Congressman Christopher Shays -- defeated by Himes in 2008 -- also produced divergent views.

Debicella -- a second-term state senator -- likened his political ideology to Himes' predecessor. "If you want a congressman like Chris Shays, then vote for me," he said.

Himes, 44, responded that Debicella's views do not match Shays' stance on issues such as women's rights, health-care reform and environmental protection.

The legacy of Shays emerged again as the candidates discussed their positions on women's reproductive rights.

"Like Chris Shays before me, I've been endorsed by Planned Parenthood," Himes said. "Dan Debicella, who is trying to wear the Chris Shays coat, has not."

Debicella maintained, however, that he is pro-choice. He also explained his vote against a 2007 state Senate bill, which has now become law, that requires hospitals to make emergency contraception available to rape victims.

"Everyone has the right to emergency contraception, but I'm not going to force Catholic hospitals to give it out in violation of their beliefs," he said.

The candidates also disagreed on health-care reform.

"It increases costs on the 94 percent of us with insurance to cover the other 6 percent," Debicella said.

As alternatives, Debicella suggested that tort reform, allowing customers to buy health insurance across state lines, and incentives for preventative medicine would bring down health-care costs.

Himes, however, said the health-care reform passed last March by Congress featured a number of benefits, including the elimination of lifetime caps on coverage, barring insurance companies from not insuring patients with pre-existing conditions, and allowing children to remain on their parents' plans until the age of 26.

"It's not perfect, but it's a historic step forward," Himes said. "In the decade to come, let's find what works, and make it better."

Concerning oversight of the finance industry, Himes and Debicella's differences also produced a more even-tempered discussion.

Himes -- who was formerly a vice president at the Goldman Sachs bank -- argued that the Dodd-Frank Bill, which passed Congress last July created a series of effective new regulations of financial institutions that would prevent another bailout.

Debicella-- who also works as a marketing vice president for The Hartford insurance and investment company-- countered that the legislation over-concentrated regulatory powers in the hands of unelected officials and recommended instead that members of Congress take the lead in drafting new rules for the financial industry.

As the debate wore on, Himes and Debicella espoused similar views on a number of issues, including the war in Afghanistan.

"We don't have a partner there in [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai," Himes said. As opposed to having a nation-building objective in Afghanistan, Himes advocated that the U.S. should maintain "just enough presence to go after the terrorists."

Debicella generally agreed with Himes, and also backed a "slow drawdown" of troops there, similar to the withdrawal of American armed forces from Iraq.

The candidates also expressed parallel views on the need for immigration reform at the national level. Himes advocated for undocumented workers to have a path to citizenship that would include paying fines, learning English and staying out of trouble with the law.

Debicella backed the introduction of a "blue card" system for citizens of other nations, which he said would deter illegal immigration by allowing foreign citizens to more easily live and work in the U.S.

And near the end of the debate, the candidates reached true agreement on at least one issue.

When asked by debate moderator Kay Maxwell about his stance on the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military, Himes said he "absolutely and unequivocally" supported its repeal.

"I fully agree," Debicella said. "Anyone who wants to serve in our military, you are a hero."

Apparently surprised by this comity, the audience laughed and applauded. The candidates also smiled and then offered each other a conciliatory handshake.

Audience Reacts

Following the debate, audience members reacted to the candidates' performances.

"I'm surprised Himes said he was proud of his record," said Al Alper of Wilton. "He's for stifling competition and stifling entrepreneurship, which is a view that I think is antithetical to the American way of life."

Sheila Wakoff of Wilton said that both candidates had spoken "articulately" during the debate, but that she was still concerned about campaign financing.

"The way elections are funded has gotten horrible," she said. "There has to be reform there."

Her husband, Gary Wakoff, said the debate had not surprised him much, with one exception.

"I learned today that Dan Debicella does not like Elizabeth Warren [who heads the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau]," he said. "That was the biggest single thing that turned me off."

On a broader scale, Gary Wakoff said his chief complaint about this mid-term election cycle was the hostile tone of many campaign ads.

"The commercials have gotten so ugly on both sides," he added. "They're always portraying the other guy as having a devil and a tail. That's the signature of these elections."