Conservative Doug Hoffman and Democratic nominee Bill Owens had missed several debates and candidate forums before Thursday's debate at WSYR-TV studios in Syracuse. Republican Dierdre Scozzafava attended all of them.
Republican registration outnumbers Democrats by 45,000 in the sprawling, upstate, 11-county district, but President Barack Obama carried it by 5 points in 2008. The issues, rather than party labels, may ultimately decide the race.
Thursday's debate five days before the election is likely the only one voters will see in this short special election period. Syracuse isn't in the district, and the debate didn't have a live audience beyond a handful of reporters.
Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman and the only elected official in the contest, took the opportunity to show off her knowledge from more than a decade in office. She was the only one to have an opinion on every question.
Republican supporters have been divided between Scozzafava and Hoffman nationally and in the northern, rural district.
Some Republicans have criticized Scozzafava as being too liberal while Hoffman has developed a following by staking out more socially and fiscally conservative positions.
"(Voters are) very concerned about the America we know and whether the America we know will be there for their children and their grandchildren," Hoffman said. During the debate, Hoffman repeated at least three times that he's a Ronald Reagan Republican.
Scozzafava said if she wins she will work to unite the party.
"I'm not going to be divisive," she said. "To me, leadership is about doing things to bring people together."
Democrat Bill Owens declined to comment on whether the schism between Republicans would give him a boost.
"I'm not focused on what they're doing, I'm focused on what I'm doing," he said. "I have consistently indicated that I've been out talking to folks, listening to them, traveling the district."
The candidates were asked about the war in Afghanistan, health care and border issues, among other things.
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Owens was noncommittal on the best strategy for the wars, saying he needed more information about what's happening on the ground to know whether the U.S. should send more troops. Scozzafava said she supports sending more troops as long as that's what the leaders on the ground are calling for, but the president needs to make a decision either way soon.
"Just to wait and waffle, I think it's taking too much time and creating an unsafe situation," she said.
Hoffman said more troops must be sent to finish the job as long as military leaders call for it.
On health care, Hoffman said he opposes any public options. Scozzafava said she is concerned the bill would include unfunded mandates and doesn't address controlling health costs.
Owens said he was mostly pleased with the bill, but was noncommittal on whether he would vote for or against a measure with a public option.
Border issues are significant in the 23rd district because it shares a border with Canada. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, security measures including a required passport have affected the people who live there.
Owens said he was confident that the process was going smoothly. Scozzafava disagreed, saying security is important, but "our neighbors to the north are our friends," and security measures must be reasonable.
Hoffman said the passport system has harmed the district's economy and discouraged tourism.