NORTH PLATTE, Nebraska — Several Nebraska U.S. Senate hopefuls took shots at Republican frontrunner Ben Sasse during a final pre-election debate that focused heavily on guns, immigration and free trade.
The debate in North Platte highlighted sharp differences between Sasse and Democratic nominee Dave Domina, while allowing the two independent candidates equal time to make their cases.
Domina noted that he has lived and worked his entire life in Nebraska, whereas Sasse was raised in Nebraska but left the state for several years to work in Washington, D.C., and to attend universities outside the state.
"I didn't leave for an education someplace else and ... I didn't come back for the purpose of grooming myself for the U.S. Senate," Domina said.
Sasse ignored Domina's criticism of his years spent outside Nebraska. Instead, he focused his closing statements on emphasizing that he is a Republican who believes that Washington is not the "center of life."
Sasse said he believes in a "humbler" Washington, D.C., that would "do a limited number of things" and less regulating and overseeing of state governments than it currently does.
Although Domina waited until the end of the debate to tangle with Sasse, independent cattle rancher Jim Jenkins took repeated jabs.
On immigration, Jenkins accused Sasse of being from the "right wing of the Republican Party," a wing that refused to even consider a comprehensive immigration plan that would include a pathway to citizenship until after the border is secured.
"He's too far right on this issue. By being to the far right, Mr. Sasse is taking a position that undermines our economy," said Jenkins, who supports a pathway to citizenship.
Domina said it's time to provide "a prompt pathway to complete citizenship" for immigrants who have illegally settled in the United States and lived here as law-abiding residents.
Sasse said border security must come first and then he might be open to the same sentiment he hears from most Nebraskans to consider a pathway to legal status, but not citizenship or voting rights.
On another controversial issue, Domina said he and most Americans favor "reasonable regulations" for gun purchases, including universal background checks.
"The NRA (National Rifle Association) is over the top" in its opposition to all gun regulation, Domina said, "and the American people have had enough with the NRA."
Sasse, who has the endorsement of the NRA, said he would be a staunch defender of Second Amendment rights.
Domina said he believes America has been harmed by such "free trade" agreements as NAFTA, saying other countries are not playing by the same rules and regulations as America's businesses.
"Free trade has cost (America) jobs, driven down the standard of living," Domina said.
Sasse said he was a staunch supporter of free trade, although he acknowledged that more work needed to be done to ensure that America was competing on a level playing field with other countries.
"I'm in favor of free trade, and free trade has done more to lift people out of poverty across the world than almost any other program," Sasse said.
Independent candidates Jenkins and Todd Watson argued that the time has come for a nonpartisan U.S. senator from Nebraska who could try to help bridge the partisan gap in the Senate, which has resulted in gridlock.
Differences on foreign policy issues, which dominated the first half of the debate, were largely marginal. The candidates are looking to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, who is not seeking re-election.