GREEN BAY, Wis. - In a discussion that was a far cry from the dramatic moments in the presidential debates, the Wisconsin candidates for U.S. Senate respectfully disagreed on many subjects in the first of two meetings they'll have before Election Day.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold took questions from a panel of journalists in Green Bay in a debate sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.
The debate quickly addressed the "elephant in the room" -- the scandals and reputation of the two nominees for president.
Johnson was asked whether he would continue to support Donald Trump despite a tape showing him making lewd comments about women and recent allegations of inappropriate sexual contact.
While never saying his name, Johnson said he would back the GOP nominee.
"I've supported areas of agreement but I've not been shy about disagreeing with our candidate and I'm not going to defend the indefensible," Johnson said. "Which is truthfully is kind of a marked difference between myself and Senator Feingold, who must be about the last American that believes that Hillary Clinton is trustworthy. He has completely supported her even though she has a decade's worth record of corruption, lying boldface to the American public."
Feingold said that he was also backing Hillary Clinton, having worked with her "in a number of contexts," despite some of her issues with using a private email server, and recent controversies stemming from hacked emails from her campaign chairman. He slammed Johnson for continuing to support Trump.
"It's my view that supporting Donald Trump is completely irresponsible and that no one should really do it after they've seen the fact that he simply isn't qualified to be president," Feingold said. "Senator Johnson has a chance to follow the lead of the other Republican senators, his colleagues who are in tough re-election fights who have said 'No enough is enough, I'm not going to support Donald Trump.' I challenge him to do the same because it's just wrong. This one of those times that you have to be an American first."
The two staked out different positions on government-mandated paid family leave, with Feingold saying he would support 12 weeks of paid leave and Johnson saying that mandates cost employers money.
"This is the view of the people of the state overwhelmingly, support family and medical leave," Feingold said. "It is a reasonable request, it is not some kind of extreme regulation."
"Paid family leave mandated by the federal government would increase the cost to those employers, not allowing them to have money to increase wages and benefits," Johnson said.
The two covered many of their main talking points in the debate, including Johnson hitting Feingold for supporting President Barack Obama's health care law, and Feingold jabbing Johnson for once referring to Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme."
Feingold also made a plug for his support of raising the minimum wage, which Johnson opposes. And Johnson is talking about the Joseph Project, an initiative he started that connects people in the inner city with manufacturing jobs.
They also attacked each other over a scandal at the Tomah Veterans Administration hospital, where a doctor was ultimately removed from his job for over-prescription of opiate painkillers. Both Feingold and Johnson have accused the other of knowing about the problem and doing nothing to stop it.
Johnson asked why Feingold "didn't raise alarm bells" when his office got memos about the issues. A union official who circulated the memo said Feingold did not receive it when he was in the Senate.
"It's a sad moment for the state of Wisconsin when a senator from Wisconsin says something he knows isn't true." Feingold said. "It's awful."
There was also an exchange over health care. The candidates were asked by a questioner on social media what they would keep and change about the federal health care law, known as Obamacare.
"I'd get rid of the Cadillac tax, I don't think that makes sense, it was something I proposed at the time, it affects perfectly legitimate policies and something I think would be a beginning step to improve it," Feingold said.
He said he would work, though, to keep Obamacare and make improvements to it.
"Certainly one thing I would keep would be to allow young adults at the age of 26 to stay on their parents' plan. That had very little cost impact in terms of our insurance carriers," Johnson said. "The thing I would definitely eliminate would be the federal definition of health care."
The candidates will meet once again for a debate on Tuesday.
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