SALT LAKE CITY — The much-anticipated debate Tuesday in the 4th District congressional race between Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens stayed largely focused on issues, but friction did surface between the candidates.
Especially after the hourlong debate, sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and held at the University of Utah's KUED studios, when the candidates took questions separately from reporters.
Love said the biggest difference between them is she wants "to get the decision-making as close to people as possible. And I think (Owens) continues to trust Washington bureaucrats instead of trusting the American people, especially Utahns."
The former Saratoga Springs mayor, who would be the first black Republican congresswoman if elected, said when candidates are confident, they "don't have to attack" their opponents by misrepresenting their stands.
"I think that it's hard for him, and he's going to have to do everything he can to try and make himself known," Love said, describing herself as "representing Utah values, and I'm conducting myself in a way that I believe is respectful."
Owens said he is not making personal attacks, but pointing out that Love is trying "to run from" her positions on education issues.
His TV commercials have featured statements Love made in her 2012 race against retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, about doing away with the U.S. Department of Education and federal student loans.
"Frankly I think she’s hiding her positions on student loans, Pell grants and the Department of Education. I've seen her refuse to answer those. But those are old and published views," Owens said.
He said Love's comment suggesting he trusts Washington bureaucrats more than Utahns is "negative campaigning, to just attribute positions you don't like to your opponent. That's certainly not fair."
The role of the federal government in education was the first issue raised during the debate.
Love said she trusts Utah parents and teachers to do what's best for students, and she called for more local control of schools and federal standards that can be changed "without feeling like we're being blackmailed with our own taxpayer dollars."
Owens called Love's views "extreme" and coming from outside Utah, and "frankly from some other era." He said Utah lags in school spending and his opponent "will make that worse" by eliminating federal funding.
The pair disagreed on the controversial Common Core State Standards, with Love opposed to decisions she said are coming from Washington and Owens saying he could support a locally agreed to standard, not one that was federally imposed.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the education question revealed the most striking differences between the candidates.
"Love clearly bristled at Owens' attempts to paint her as an extreme candidate and to say that she wanted to end students loans and federal education assistance to Utah," Karpowitz said.
But Owens, he said, failed to "press the issue by following up with specific examples of why potential differences mattered." Love said during the debate she had never called for doing away with student loans.
Love said she would not have supported last year's federal government shutdown that resulted from a fight over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, but wanted to repeal the health care law.
Owens used the question to bring up his late father, Wayne Owens, a Democrat who represented Utah in Congress. Owens said his father was able to work across the aisle on major water and other projects.
Neither candidate made a major error, Karpowitz said, but they also didn't stray far the from their campaign talking points. For Owens, he said, that meant talking about ending Washington gridlock, while for Love, it was all about local control.
"I think there was a little less fireworks than a lot of people thought it might be. I thought it was very civil," said Love's campaign manager, Dave Hansen.
Hansen said he believed many who tuned in had not yet made up their minds.
A new UtahPolicy.com poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed Love 9 points ahead of Owens with 9 percent undecided, a much tighter race than the 19-point lead she had in a poll her campaign released last week.
Owens' brother, Steve, said he wished there had been more debates between the candidates.
"That was a matter of some frustration," Steve Owens said, especially since mail-in ballots have already been distributed.
The debate was only the second time both candidates have shared a stage to talk about the issues. The first, before the Utah Taxpayers Association in May, turned confrontational when Owens challenged Love's "extremist views."
Love declined to appear with Owens at a Salt Lake Chamber debate, choosing to answer questions separately, but will join Owens for a third and final debate on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" on Oct. 30 at 10 a.m.
The race to replace Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation, has stayed heated. Owens has launched commercials aimed at Love's positions on the federal government's role in education.
In Love's latest TV commercials, a narrator decries "political attack ads" and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert assures voters that "no matter what her opponent tries to tell you, Mia Love wants Utah to remain in control of educating Utah students."
Her other new commercial uses footage of two-time Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, one of the most popular politicians in Utah, from a campaign rally he headlined for Love last week in Utah County.
Contributing: Rich Piatt