By OSKAR GARCIA
HONOLULU — U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono says former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle is key to Republican plans to take over control of the Senate, while Lingle says Hirono hasn’t mastered issues she’d need to vote on as a U.S. senator.
The rivals traded barbs directly for the first time Thursday in the first of five debates in their race to replace Sen. Daniel Akaka.
Lingle pitched herself as an effective two-term governor who’s known to Hawaii residents, saying she won’t be a rubber stamp for Republicans.
Hirono, a Democrat, countered that the bottom line of the race is its national importance to the GOP, who want to undo President Barack Obama’s accomplishments.
“What’s at stake, bottom line, truly, is the direction of our country,” said Hirono, who lost to Lingle in 2002 when the pair competed to be Hawaii’s governor.
Lingle went on to serve two terms, an accomplishment she called the biggest of her life.
“I was an effective governor for those eight years, and I want to be an effective senator for you, as well,” Lingle said.
The opponents agreed several times on broad concepts. Both said corporate money shouldn’t dominate politics and reducing national debt will take complex solutions. They both said they’re good at cooperating and able to be bipartisan.
But each took turns attacking one another more than expected for an event billed as a forum, not a debate.
“My opponent doesn’t really understand the nature of being globally competitive,” Lingle said in response to the first question about Hawaii’s economy, after Hirono said she supports Obama’s jobs plan and a bill she’s co-sponsoring that would help tourism by changing visa restrictions on other countries.
Hirono, meanwhile, sought to directly connect Lingle with Obama’s presidential foe, Mitt Romney, and Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
“(Republicans) are looking at my opponent as their No. 1 draft pick,” Hirono said.
The verbal skirmishes riled up a lunchtime crowd of about 170 business leaders in Honolulu.
“This is fun,” Hirono said after one exchange that required moderator Dan Boylan to intervene.
“The truth is fun,” Lingle responded.
Hirono and Lingle plan to have four televised debates in October.