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GOP Senate candidate: Reform the VA, balance the budget

Republicans tapped one of their most promising 2014 Senate candidates to deliver the party's weekly address Saturday, handing the microphone to Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, who discussed her service in the military and offered a conservative message of balanced budgets and entitlement reform.

"I get asked all the time what made me want to join the military," said Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. "And the answer is simple: When I was attending college, I went on an agricultural exchange to the Soviet Union. And I saw with my own eyes what a nation without freedom looks like. I saw what happens to people when they lose their liberty."

"When I came home, I decided that it wasn't enough for me to simply enjoy freedom and liberty. I had to do my part to protect and preserve it," she said.

She criticized the health care scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department, in which some veterans died after being denied timely care, saying the "stories we've heard about the failures of the VA are heartbreaking."

"As an active member of the Iowa National Guard and the wife of a retired U.S. Army ranger, I believe this isn't a partisan issue," she added. "It's an American problem that must be solved."

Ernst stuck closely to the GOP line on fiscal policy, pushing a balanced budget amendment and a smaller government footprint in the economy. She also criticized Obamacare, saying the president's health care law is putting government between doctors and their patients.

"We need to start over and create real, meaningful heath care reform that allows ... Americans to choose the plans they want, the doctors they need, at a cost they can afford," she said.

She also pushed vaguely for entitlement reform, saying Social Security and Medicare must be protected to "keep our promise to today's seniors," but the programs also need to be "reformed" so they're still available to younger Americans as they age.

Ernst will challenge Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in November to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Though Iowa leans slightly to the left - the state broke for President Obama by nine points in 2008 and by 6 points in 2012 - a series of verbal miscues from Braley and a tough 2014 climate for Democrats have kept the race close.

In March, the congressman was caught on tape criticizing Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school."

Republicans accused Braley of looking down his nose at Iowa farmers, and he apologized for the remark.

And in June, Braley released an ad criticizing Ernst's record in the Iowa Senate that showed a baby chick onscreen as the narrator said Ernst never made a "peep" about wasteful spending as a state lawmaker.

While the ad did not label Ernst a "chick" or even mention the word, Republicans were quick to pounce on what they saw as the spot's sexist undertones. In a statement, Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said the ad "degrades and insults Iowa women by comparing Joni Ernst to a 'chick.'"

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