Grand Rapids — U.S. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican opponent John James appeared in their first debate Sunday, trading respectful blows over issues from health care, trade and immigration to roads and contaminants in Michigan's water supply.

Stabenow sought at times to link James to his support of President Donald Trump and his lack of political experience. James in return said that even though Stabenow is a "nice lady," he labeled her as ineffective and "hyper-partisan." 

James, 37, a Farmington Hills businessman and Iraq War veteran, sought to assert that the incumbent Stabenow was out of touch with voters and had little to show for her decades in office. 

"Senator, what took you so long?" he said.

Stabenow, 66, of Lansing, mostly avoided being aggressive toward James, and in her closing statements thanked him for his military service. Then she reminded voters that James is a novice.

"The reality is, this is not the moment for inexperience," Stabenow said in her closing remarks. "This is the moment for folks that have relationships, that have experience and seniority and a proven track record, against all the odds that they can get something done."

The debate was taped Sunday afternoon at the studios of WGVU Public Media, which is affiliated with Grand Valley State University and was to be aired at 7 p.m. in Detroit on PBS. The next debate will be Monday at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon at the Motor City Casino Hotel ballroom.

Debates had become an issue in the campaign: Stabenow had not had one for more than a decade. James, who has been trailing in the polls, wanted them. Stabenow led, 53 percent to 35 percent, over James in a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Detroit News-WDIV poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Nearly 40 percent of likely Michigan voters did not know who James was in the poll, though his name identification improved to 58 percent, compared with 54 percent in early September.

James took the advantage to let voters know the differences between him and his opponent, emphasizing from his opening statement how being an Apache helicopter pilot in the Army and running a logistics company in Detroit helped him learn how to lead.

James said that if he's elected, "I'm going to work with anyone from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders to get things done and bring resources back to the state of Michigan."

Stabenow said PFAS contamination in waterways and soil, an issue that has surfaced in Michigan recently, needed to be quickly identified  and that funding from the state and federal level should be used to clean up the contamination. James said he wanted to protect "our precious waters," but moving from "crisis to crisis isn't the right way.

"We have a crisis in Flint with water. We have a crisis with PFAS when it comes to water," James said. "I think we need to start looking ahead and starting thinking more about 2116 than 2016. We need the right leadership who understands how to bring people together, because again, bipartisanship is not a buzzword."

He added: "If you don't get the right leadership to work with everybody and not just tow the party line, then we're going to end up with water that's more toxic in a generation than it is right now. We don't need more lip service."

On health care reform, Stabenow said she opposed the Republican plan of "putting health care back into the hands of insurance companies," where they will decide if someone with a pre-existing condition condition gets coverage and put caps on services. This would affect half of Michigan families, she said. "I reject that," she said.

James argued that Stabenow "advocates for a full government takeover of your health care that would result in throwing our seniors to the back of the bus and saddling the future generation" with trillions of dollars in debt. "We cannot let that happen," he said.

On immigration reform, Stabenow said she doesn't want "people being used as political pawns."  She said she supports U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Dreamers who have been here their whole lives should be able to "stay here in the only country they have ever known."

James said it's an "economic and moral imperative for this country to have legal immigration," and also supports keeping families together and working with Dreamers.

When it comes to infrastructure and roads, James said "my opponent has been a career politician for 43 years in a position to do something to fix these things. Line 5 is 65 years old. Why are we just now getting around to doing something about it? The pipes and the sewers and the roads are decades old."

Stabenow said she's not about blame but about solving problems.

"We need roads, bridges, water, sewer systems, we know that," she said, adding that Republicans controlled the Legislature and Congress for years but still hadn't achieved much.

To counter James' attacks, Stabenow repeatedly pointed to Trump's support of James. Trump has been largely unpopular in Michigan since he won the state in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"He said he would make President Trump proud," Stabenow said. "I get up every day working to make you proud. He says he's for President Trump's agenda 2,000 percent. I'm for Michigan 2,000 percent."

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