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Tough debates for two tough Illinois congressional races

The four candidates running to fill two of Illinois’ most hotly-contested congressional seats clashed on the economy, health care and the barrage of campaign attack ads during a pair of television debates recorded Saturday.

The two 30-minute debates highlighted races both Republicans and Democrats say could help determine which party controls the U.S. House: In Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, which stretches from the North Shore to the Wisconsin border, incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Dold squared off against Democrat Brad Schneider; for the 11th Congressional District, in the southwest suburbs, incumbent GOP Rep. Judy Biggert faced Democrat Bill Foster, himself a former congressman.

The debates were organized by the League of Women Voters of Illinois and ABC 7 TV in Chicago.

Here are some of the highlights:

10th: Tax cuts, tax returns & Planned Parenthood

Dold and Schneider offered a stark difference on whether to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts on high-income earners. Schneider said he supports raising taxes on people who make more than $250,000, while Dold suggested those tax cuts should stay put.

“I don’t believe that raising taxes in this fragile economy right now is the appropriate response in terms of trying to make sure we’re getting more people back to work and off the unemployment lines,” Dold said.

Dold also attacked Schneider for refusing to release his tax returns.

“Show us what’s going on,” Dold said. “What are you afraid of? Or more realistically, what are you hiding?”

Schneider, for his part, defended his decision, saying all relevant information about his finances are contained in financial disclosure forms he filed with the U.S. House. Those forms show his wife works for Mesirow Financial, but do not disclose her salary.

“I believe my wife deserves a certain degree of privacy, and I am proud of her success, but I also have to make sure that she continues to succeed,” Schneider said.

Schneider also claimed Dold had voted to allow drilling for oil in Lake Michigan, and to take away funding for Planned Parenthood – both things Dold flat out denied.

“I’ve never voted to allow drilling, nor will I allow drilling in the Great Lakes,” Dold said.

Dold went onto explain he voted against a proposed amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. But he said the amendment passed and later became part of a larger spending bill he supported.

11th: Medicare & negativity

Foster began by adopting a popular Democratic line of attack this election season: calling out his Republican opponent for voting in favor of the budget proposal backed by Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee.

Biggert defended her vote for Ryan’s plan, which would dramatically cut government spending over the next decade, reduce funding to Medicaid and overhaul Medicare so that the government would pay partial subsidies to people who want to buy private insurance.

“The plan and the budget are – is a roadmap on how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to strategize” to reduce the national debt, Biggert said, adding Ryan’s plan was just a starting point for negotations.

Foster, meanwhile, insisted the budget plan would “do tremendous damage to the retirement security of our seniors,” and vowed to keep Medicare as a “guaranteed benefit.”

The pair also took turns deriding the negative campaign ads that have begun to inundate their race, some funded by the candidates themselves and others by outside groups.

Biggert, who was first elected in 1998, took issue with being labeled a “career politician.” Foster said a Biggert-backed ad mischaracterized the circumstances surrounding worker layoffs at a stage lighting company he founded with his brother.

When the candidates were given the opportunity to grill each other, Biggert stumbled for 15 seconds before asking a half-formed question.

“I wanna know how you are going to, uh – solve the, uh, campaign finance…”

“ – problem,” finished Foster, who then went on to say that outside spending by super PACs and other groups is “one of the biggest threats to our democracy.”

Asked afterward why it seemed so difficult to come up with the question, Biggert suggested she wasn’t comfortable going on the attack.

“I had a question and I just couldn’t remember what it was,” she said. “I just didn’t think that this was the way I wanna be. I don’t like sending out anything like [negative ads]. … But it’s what people respond to, and I think that’s a shame."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Democrat Bill Foster runs a stage lighting company. The story has been corrected to reflect that Foster founded the company with his brother. According to his website, Foster sold his interest in the company in 2007.

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