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Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop and Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin squared off in their first debate, which became heated as they traded jabs on healthcare policy and the environment and responded to one another's attack ads.

The contest in Michigan's 8th District is among the most expensive and closely watched nationwide, as Democrats seek to flip a seat in the Republican-leaning district that includes Livingston County and parts of Oakland and Ingham counties. 

The campaigns for Bishop and Slotkin both promptly claimed their candidate won the debate, which aired Sunday morning on WDIV's Flashpoint, moderated by anchor Devin Scillian.

Bishop of Rochester, who is seeking a third term, stressed his roots in the district and depicted Slotkin as beholden to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“I think it's important for all of us to stand up and be a part of the future of our country and stand up to the bullies who are trying to buy this district in a power grab," Bishop said.

"I'm going to stand up to it. I'm going to fight for it. I believe in our founding principles and our founding fathers."

Slotkin of Holly, a former top defense official in the Obama administration, lamented the tone and tenor of politics as "unbecoming of the country." 

"The important thing is having people that care about getting something done instead of just saluting their party," Slotkin said.

"We need a new generation that thinks differently, that works harder and remembers that they are public servants. People have forgotten that their job is to make the lives of their constituents better."

Their exchanges litigated several issues that have played out in their campaign commercials, including Bishop's vote for the GOP healthcare bill and whether Pelosi recruited Slotkin to run. 

Bishop suggested that Slotkin would support Pelosi's agenda in Congress. 

"Pelosi has broken every record. She’s the biggest special interest in the state of Michigan right now. She’s funneling millions of dollars into this state," Bishop said. 

Slotkin reiterated that she would not support Pelosi for House speaker. 

"He says that Nancy Pelosi recruited me to run for this race? Mike Bishop recruited me to run in this race the minute he voted to completely obliterate protections for people with preexisting conditions," Slotkin said. 

"That is personal to me. My mother had a preexisting condition. She couldn't afford healthcare for years. It was his vote — after that watching him on the White House lawn that recruited me to this race."  

Bishop again defended his vote for the bill to repeal the federal health care law known as Obamcare, saying it included protections for preexisting conditions, including funding a high-risk pool for patients. 

Bishop noted that his wife has a preexisting condition — juvenile rheumatoid arthritis — saying the issue is "first and foremost on my mind." 

"All you have to do is read the bill," he said, pointing to the section of the legislation that "specifically prohibits" denying coverage for preexisting conditions. 

Slotkin said that makes no difference to affordability.  "This is why people can’t stand politicians because they say one thing and they do another," Slotkin said.

"He can quote his bill that says you can’t prohibit for someone with a preexisting condition from getting care. That doesn’t mean they can afford it. That’s exactly the position my mother was in," she said.

Bishop interjected: "They can’t afford it now.”

Environment 

Scillian asked the candidates about climate change, and Slotkin noted her involvement in one of the first studies the Pentagon did on effect of climate change on the U.S. military.

"Our military believes it's happening," Slotkin said, saying humans have contributed to the changing climate.

"I am someone who believes in science and believes in fact and you just have to talk to the farmers in our district about their concerns about climate change. 

Bishop said he believes there's "clear evidence of a change in our climate in this world." 

"Whether it's man-made, who knows. I believe in science, as well, but we live in cyclical world, cyclical Earth that's gone through many different forms, different weather patterns," Bishop said, noting past shifts weren't caused by human activity. 

"I think the more important question is pollution and keeping things safe."

Bishop was stressing the bipartisan support for Great Lakes cleanup efforts that, for instance, target invasive species control when Slotkin interrupted. 

"I know it’s Halloween season, but you just can’t put on a mask and pretend you’re an environmentalist because you’re in a tough election cycle, Mike," she said. "Your voting record for 21 years has done nothing to protect our water, protect our air." 

Slotkin accused Bishop of "making it easier" to drill for oil and gas in the Great Lakes.

Her campaign said she was referring to Bishop's time in the Michigan Legislature voting against limiting drilling in the Great Lakes, though he later supported the state's ban on drilling.

His campaign noted that, as Senate majority leader, Bishop spearheaded adoption of the Great Lakes Compact, an interstate agreement on managing and protecting the lakes, and in Congress pushed to restore funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Bishop responded to Slotkin by quoting something Sen. John McCain said to Slotkin at her confirmation hearing — a clip of which plays in a TV attack ad on Slotkin. 

"In the immortal words of John McCain, 'You either don’t know the truth or you aren’t telling the truth.' That's the bottom line," Bishop said.

"I have done so much in my career to address Great Lakes issues. My whole family spends time at the Great Lakes. That's been our heritage in this state. I live here. And future generations depend on what we do."  

Immigration 

Asked about President Donald Trump's proposed wall on the southern border, Bishop said a wall suggests a structural barrier. 

"What we need is a secure border. There's places along the border that have a unique spot for a wall," Bishop said. "There’s technology that would allow us to create a barrier that’s equal to a wall, and I think we need to invest in it."

Bishop stressed the important role of the agency U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and "my opponents’ party has proposed getting rid of ICE and let's support sanctuary cities and that's not common sense," he said. 

Slotkin replied that "his opponent can speak for herself."

"I am a different person that this sort of stereotype that Mr. Bishop likes to put out there of every Democrat," she said. 

"As someone who served her country, let me say unequivocally that I believe ICE should exist and be able to continue to carry out its mandate, just like any other service and border force should," Slotkin said. 

She said she "feels strongly" that security at the border needs to be enhanced. "I don't believe a wall makes sense, but more technology and more agents, yes," she said.

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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