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Owens, Doheny square off in Plattsburgh debate

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CANTON - Those watching on television didn’t see it, but WPTZ’s website gave viewers on the Internet an exclusive look at a moment that would set the tone of Tuesday night’s debate in Plattsburgh between Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and Republican Matthew A. Doheny of Watertown.

Seconds before the show started, Mr. Owens joked with the moderators that he’d never before been the warm-up act to a presidential debate. Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama squared off an hour later. Mr. Owens received a polite chuckle from one of the anchors, but Mr. Doheny didn’t rate the joke highly.

“I’m the only one laughing, unfortunately,” Mr. Doheny said.

A few moments later, the debate started, the rest of the cameras turned on and in his opening statement, Mr. Owens repeated the warm-up act quip and Mr. Doheny repeated the word “unfortunately” several more times in reference to Mr. Owens.

Mr. Doheny was clearly the aggressor during the first part of the debate, referring to Mr. Owens several times, while Mr. Owens mostly avoided referring to Mr. Doheny. Mr. Owens is viewed by many as a slight favorite in the race, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Mr. Doheny was the aggressor.

But both candidates got in their shots in the middle of the debate when the moderators allowed them to ask each other questions. The exchanges included pointed requests of each to let the other finish his sentence.

In a telephone interview after the debate, Mr. Owens was asked whether he’d agree that Mr. Doheny was on the offensive.

“I think he was attacking,” Mr. Owens said. “On the offensive means you were in the position to score. I would draw a distinction between those two things.”

Mr. Doheny asked Mr. Owens about why he supported President Obama, whether he was “embarrassed” at the high unemployment rate in Clinton County and whether he would support a balanced budget amendment.

On Mr. Obama, Mr. Owens said that he believed Mr. Obama is the candidate who will look out for the middle class.

“In my view, he is the person who has the interest of the middle class at heart and would do the best job in terms of driving the middle class forward, not backward, like the policies that you propose,” Mr. Owens said.

And on his feelings on the unemployment rate, Mr. Owens also said he was “very disturbed” by the unemployment rate in Clinton County, which tops 10 percent. And he said he does favor balanced budgets, just not a constitutional amendment that would require them, pointing out that the budget was in a surplus in President Clinton’s time in office.

Mr. Owens asked Mr. Doheny how he would make up for lost tax dollars by extending tax cuts for the wealthy in December, whether he acknowledged that privatizing Medicare would send up the cost of premiums and about trade with China.

On the Bush tax cuts, Mr. Doheny said that the $700 billion cost over 10 years could be paid by eliminating “corporate welfare,” or subsidies that go to private companies. He also said he does not support privatizing Medicare. He has said he supports a plan that would increase private competition in the marketplace. Mr. Owens said that the plan constituted privatization.

The two also discussed globalization and trade. The moderators asked about a Target store that is based in Cornwall. Why couldn’t it have been built in Massena?

Mr. Doheny said that America’s corporate tax rate is too high — an opinion that he shares with Mr. Owens. He also discussed burdensome regulations.

Mr. Owens, meanwhile, stuck to a local script, arguing that Massena wasn’t picked because it doesn’t have an adequate east-west highway. The proposed Interstate 98 highway would solve that problem, Mr. Owens suggested. Mr. Doheny has said he doesn’t support I-98, citing high costs.

The two men, who both have been practicing lawyers in the past, cross-examined each other for a good part of the debate, but they both went back to their business backgrounds when discussing why they ought to be elected. Mr. Owens worked on a team to help bring Canadian companies to Northern New York. And for more than a decade, Mr. Doheny has worked in the financial industry. In 2011, he started North Country Capital LLC, a Watertown-based investment firm.

“You need a businessman,” Mr. Doheny said. “You need someone who knows how to get things done.”

For his part, Mr. Owens added a local twist.

“There is a contrast here,” Mr. Owens said. “I’ve been doing the things Mr. Doheny talks about for 30 years in this community, helping to see the community grow and prosper.”

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