BOZEMAN - The Patriot Act and its role in fighting terrorism - or squashing civil rights, depending on your point of view - dominated a U.S. Senate debate here Monday night, as all three candidates clashed over the law.
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., defended its expansion of government investigators' powers, saying it has helped fight terrorism and other illegal activity.
"You have not given up one freedom under the Patriot Act that you didn't have before, unless you're a terrorist or suspected terrorist - or unless you are affiliated with the Mafia, or with drug kingpins," Burns told an audience of 1,200 people at the Strand Union Ballroom on the Montana State University campus.
That remark brought a sharp rejoinder from Libertarian Stan Jones of Bozeman, who said the act allows certain suspects to be locked up forever without an attorney or civil trial.
"I'm sorry, (senator), you're telling me that I'm guilty of being a terrorist first," Jones said to Burns. "You've turned our legal system upside down. I have to prove my innocence. We have to turn this thing off."
Democrat Jon Tester, who has said the act should be repealed, also reiterated his criticisms that it needlessly takes away individual freedoms while the war on terror is being bungled by the Bush administration.
"Let's not get sidetracked by a war in Iraq, while pulling out of Afghanistan in 2002," he said. "We're taking freedoms away from honest people. If (the government) thinks you happen to fall under it, you're a target."
Yet the rest of the debate - the fourth in this closely watched contest - offered little else in the way of oral fireworks or anything new, as the candidates mostly repeated well-worn campaign themes.
Burns, a Republican seeking his fourth consecutive term, touted the federal money he has brought to Montana State University and talked up President Bush's tax cuts, saying they have been the primer for a growing economy.
Tester, a Big Sandy farmer and Montana state Senate president, who had a 7-percentage-point lead in the latest independent poll, said the country needs new leadership and a change of direction. Voters should throw out a corrupt Congress dominated by corporate interests and their lobbyists, he said.
"We'd better prioritize better and start looking out for middle-class folks," he said. "But that's not the folks who have control back in D.C. right now."
Jones, appearing for the first time in a debate with Burns and Tester, said the federal government needs to abolish most of its departments and cease "unconstitutional" activities. He also said the world is moving toward a "one-world Communist government," controlled by international trade agreements.
But Tester and Burns, locked in a battle for a seat that Republicans and Democrats see as vital in the struggle for partisan control of the Senate, did mix it up briefly on a few subjects.
On college tuition, Tester said higher education "is almost unattainable" for some because of its cost, and slammed Burns for voting for a bill this year that cut a federal tax credit for tuition costs.
The government needs to increase grants and low-interest loans for college students, rather than scale back on these programs, he said.
Burns replied later that college tuition in Montana has gone up 48 percent while Tester has been in the state Senate - but didn't mention that Republicans controlled the governorship and the Legislature for the first six of Tester's eight years in the state Senate.
On global warming, Tester said it's wrong for the U.S. to simply pull out of international talks to limit emissions thought to cause global warming.
Temperatures have been increasing much more rapidly than ever before, and the government needs to commit to researching technologies that can slow global warming, he said.
Burns said limiting emissions "taxes the economy," and doesn't necessarily control those who emit greenhouse gases. He said he's a big supporter of alternative energy. But he also suggested that global warming isn't that serious: "We've been warming since the Ice Age - and that can change. That's a pretty well-known fact."
Tester and Burns face off again Thursday at a debate in Helena, and have two more debates scheduled next week.