NEW BEDFORD -- To prepare for his debate last night against one of the quickest quippers in Congress, Chuck Morse studied tapes of John F. Kennedy's debate with Richard Nixon. His opponent, US Representative Barney Frank, skimmed passages from Morse's book, "Why I am a Right Wing Extremist."
Frank's preparation paid off. Last night, the 24-year congressman from Newton skewered Morse for what Frank said were glowing passages about former Senator Joseph McCarthy and for a suggestion that President Clinton was behind the Oklahoma City bombing.
"I don't think his defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy was jocular," Frank said, rejecting Morse's claim that the book was meant to be parody. "I understand you support McCarthy -- you emulate him."
Morse largely defended his essays but said the book did not represent his platform. "I'm not backing away," he said, "and I'm not running as poet laureate."
The hour-long debate was the third campaign encounter between Frank and Morse, in what even Morse concedes is his long-shot bid to unseat the veteran Democrat. Frank is treating the race much like a prize fighter treats a sparring partner; he already is readying a run for the US Senate if John F. Kerry wins his race for the White House.
Morse just hopes to slow down Frank. "I'm a pretty good communicator," insisted Morse, a conservative radio talk-show host, assessing the debates he has had with Frank during the campaign. "I can certainly hold my own against Barney Frank."
Frank is not impressed: "I didn't notice any great skill," Frank said of Morse, before last night's event at New Bedford's Wamsutta Club. "He began our first debate saying he was intimidated."
Frank spent most of last night's heated debate disputing Morse's wide-ranging allegations, including a charge that legislation Frank sponsored in 1990 helped the 9/11 hijackers enter the United States. Responding to claims that his ties to industry lobbyists cost New Bedford banking jobs, Frank began the debate by calling Morse's attacks "the local version of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth."
Speaking to a crowd of 50 in New Bedford, Morse criticized Frank for standing by as Sovereign Bank cut 350 jobs after buying Compass Bank. He also said the Democratic representative could not work with the state's Republican governor, Mitt Romney, or the Republicans in the White House and in Congress.
"Where does Barney Frank turn?" he asked.
In other clashes, Morse defended the invasion of Iraq, which Frank called a $120 billion "unnecessary war." Morse also praised the Patriot Act, which Frank opposed, as well as the $89 billion spending bill on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frank, 58, was rated by a CSPAN survey as the Democratic Party's most effective speaker. The September issue of The Washingtonian magazine called him the Democrats' best debater in Congress.
On his AM radio show, "Morse Code" on WROL, and cable TV program in Brookline, Morse has sparred with such liberal heavyweights as Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, and Noam Chomsky. "Talkers Magazine" listed him among the "hot 100 upcoming talk show hosts in America." He debated Frank by phone three times on his talk-radio show. In March, the two dueled over Iraq policy, an encounter that left Morse confident he could take on the veteran representative.
An earlier debate with Frank in Mattapoisett left Morse "stammering," according to an account in the New Bedford Standard Times. Morse's spokesman, Ben Kilgore, conceded he was "too polite."
"Morse is a good talker, but he knows absolutely nothing about anything," said Kay Reis, 70, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the Mattapoisett debate. "Barney encouraged him to make a raving fool of himself and he obliged."
Morse has acknowledged his uphill battle. Frank recently purchased $350,000 of air time, mostly on Boston TV stations, in what was seen as an effort to raise his profile in case he runs for Senate. He has raised more than $1 million through Sept. 30. Morse has $140,000 in his campaign account.
Frank has agreed to debate Morse several times, including the Oct. 14 encounter at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett and another debate three days later in Newton for a cable TV program scheduled to be shown today on local access Channel 9 at 2:09 p.m.
The candidates plan a final meeting tonight on New England Cable News.
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