PORTLAND — The four Democrats who want to be Maine’s next U.S. senator traded arguments Saturday about health care, foreign policy, the national debt and other issues during the first formal debate of the primary campaign.

Former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, state Rep. Jon Hinck and businessman Benjamin Pollard shared the stage during a friendly two-hour event hosted by the Portland Club. The candidates agreed in general about most of the issues, but highlighted different experiences and perspective they said would make them their party’s best candidate.

Each hopes to win the June 12 Democratic primary and become the party’s nominee in an election that has taken on national significance with the retirement announcement of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. An audience of more than 30 people, and several television crews, watched the debate, which was moderated by Democratic former state Rep. Herb Adams.

On health care, Dunlap, Hinck and Dill each said they believe the 2010 federal health care reform law should be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pollard, however, said he believes the requirement that individual buy health insurance is unconstitutional. “It’s an extremely large assumption of power by the federal government,” he said.

On foreign policy, the candidates generally agreed that the United States should move cautiously regarding military intervention in Syria, but they expressed a range a views about U.S. military use.

“I really don’t believe that war is the answer, really hardly ever. … I think we should do everything we can to support diplomacy at every opportunity,” Dill said.

“I believe we have to proceed with great care in making military commitments, … (but) we cannot stand by and let citizens be indiscriminately slaughtered by their governments,” Dunlap said.

Hinck said he also would be reluctant to commit troops abroad. “I think we’ve overextended. We’ve hurt our economy and we are not achieving the objectives” of current military operations.

Pollard said he would support providing arms to Syrian rebels, and also would consider airstrikes.

“I do believe we have a respond as the world only superpower to keep the peace in the world,” he said.

All four said they would work to reduce the nation’s debt.

Dill said she would focus on military spending and regulation of Wall Street financial firms that helped cause the recession. “We had, basically, people looting our economy who haven’t been held responsible,” she said.

Dunlap said he would look at the Bush tax cuts, adding, “The deficit problems we have today are rooted in the growing inequality in the tax code.”

Hinck said it will take both spending cuts and tax increases, but debt reduction has to be balanced with keeping the economy growing. “If everyone holds on to sacred cows, we go nowhere. … That has to change.”

Pollard said he would reform the tax code.

“I do think the wealthiest Americans benefited the most from the prosperity of recent decades. … Those individuals and corporations should be responsible for reducing the deficit.”

On energy, the candidates agreed that Maine’s next U.S. senator should work hard to maintain federal low-income heating assistance because of the large number of Maine families that can’t afford to fill their oil tanks and heat leaky homes. They also agreed that the government should invest in weatherization programs to reduce the need for heating oil over the long term.

Six Republicans, meanwhile, are running for their party’s nomination and will begin a series of nine weekly candidate forums Thursday in Presque Isle.

The six Republican candidates are former Maine Senate President Richard Bennett, businessman Scott D’Amboise, state Sen. Debra Plowman, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Attorney General William Schneider and Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers.

Former Gov. Angus King is among the independent candidates who will face the party nominees this fall.

John Richardson — 791-6324

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