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Larsen and Koster Spar in Washington

MARYSVILLE, Wash. — Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and his Republican challenger, John Koster, sparred Friday over the GOP candidate’s decision to pull out of a free-ranging debate in favor of a forum with pre-packaged questions.

Larsen and Koster had been scheduled to meet in Seattle on Thursday night for a live, televised debate, but Koster pulled out at the last minute after disapproving of the panel put together by KCTS 9, a public broadcasting station hosting the event. Team Koster had asked for changes to the panel, the station said.

Twelve hours after the canceled debate was supposed to take place, the two men faced off in a casino an hour north of Seattle for a forum hosted by the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce, with star lights and disco balls above their heads. They illustrated their differences by fielding 10 questions they knew ahead of time and could prepare for — disagreeing on just about everything.

The only opportunity to engage came at the end, as each candidate could ask the other one question. Larsen asked Koster to explain why he “backed out of last night’s live, spontaneous, televised debate.”

“I’d be more than happy to, Mr. Larsen,” said Koster, who sits on the Snohomish County Council. “You know I can’t drop the gavel and go home so I can campaign like you did.”

Koster then accused Larsen of changing the ground rules and KCTS of refusing to negotiate with his campaign about changing the makeup of the three-person panel that would ask questions.

“I’m not afraid to debate you anytime, anyplace,” Koster said. “We’re all here. You had your opportunity this morning.”

The 2nd district race is closer than Democrats expected earlier in the cycle, as Larsen won his last three elections with more than 60 percent.

During the question-and-answer session, Larsen and Koster gave different answers on everything except Afghanistan, disagreeing on a card check measure supported by labor unions, taxes, federal education policy, cap-and-trade and earmarks.

Larsen emphasized his family roots in the district and his work over the last 10 years to represent all interests in the district. He often cited his work on behalf of Boeing Co. and for the designation of 106,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as wilderness. (He thanked President George W. Bush for signing the bill.)

Larsen also continued to hit Koster for not having any ideas that stray from the national party line, accusing his rival of tea party stances such as wanting to eliminate the Department of Education.

“I didn’t hear a plan from John Koster,” Larsen said after a question about how to spur job growth. “Those aren’t John Koster’s ideas. Those are Sarah Palin’s ideas. We need solutions for us here in this corner of the state.”

“What you just heard is not a plan. It’s not any idea to deal with this very serious issue we’re facing here,” Larsen said later after Koster explained why the “Bush tax cuts” don’t necessarily need to be paid for.

Koster slammed Larsen for running negative ads against him and mostly derided Congress for “spending what we don’t have.” Despite Larsen’s charges, Koster said, he does not support privatizing Social Security or eliminating the Department of Education.

The audience ate a breakfast of eggs and sausage as the two took turns answering questions from the moderator. The crowd was split mostly 50-50, according to applause each candidate received.

Larsen said he considers being a Representative a privilege, not a job, and asked the crowd to vote him in for two more years.

“In my time in office, I haven’t fanned the flames,” Larsen said. “In my time in office, I have fought the fire with you. I have met our challenges head on.”

“I’m not here to fan the flames,” Koster responded in his closing argument. “We need to get this country back on track. We need to have people believe again that they can achieve the American dream. And if I’m passionate about that, I’m not going to apologize. If you think that’s fanning the flames, that’s your problem, Mr. Congressman.”

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