LEWISTON — The economy, taxes and health care took center stage with the three major U.S. Senate candidates Monday night in a debate at the Franco American Heritage Center.

The debate, the third of the campaign, illustrated major policy differences between independent Angus King, Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill, who are running to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.

All three tackled a range of policy questions in front of a lively crowd of about 300.

The debate, which featured several questions from an online audience, started with a question about how the candidates would improve an unemployment rate that now is just over 8 percent.

The answers came throughout the evening, as the majority of policy questions circled back to the economy and what the candidates would do to improve it.

King and Summers, in a rare moment of agreement, said the federal government could do more to decrease regulations for businesses.

The two rivals differed when the discussion moved to the federal health care law’s effects on business owners.

Summers, who reiterated his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, framed the law as a job killer that hurts small businesses.

King and Dill said repealing it would take the country backward.

“For the life of me,” King said, “I can’t understand why giving 50 million Americans health care that wouldn’t otherwise have it has become a partisan issue.”

He said that repealing the law would reverse progress on health care reform.

King also challenged Summers’ comments that the Affordable Care Act would increase the federal deficit by $2 trillion. King, citing an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, said the law will save money.

The analysis, published in July, said that repealing the health care law would add $109 billion to the deficit. The study also projected that the law will save the federal government $84 billion because fewer people will be covered by Medicaid.

Republicans have countered that the Affordable Care Act is a $1 trillion tax increase that raids Medicaid funding.

The candidates also differed on income equalization, that is, taxing different income streams at the same rate.

Summers echoed the position of a number of Republicans nationally who argue for repealing capital gains taxes on sales of stock and making the so-called Bush tax cuts permanent. Summers said the capital gains tax punishes success.

King and Dill took the opposite position, saying it is unfair to eliminate taxes on such income while asking regular workers to pay for it.

King said the capital gains tax should be the same as the income tax.

A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office noted that the capital gains tax will yield about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Republicans have embraced repealing the tax, but the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan organization, recently noted that advocates have not made clear how they would pay for the repeal.

The candidates were also asked if they support the recent decision by the U.S. Treasury to sell bonds.

Summers said the government should be wary of “printing money” and devaluing the U.S. dollar.

King said the decision by the treasury wasn’t ideal but it was necessary, given the inability of Congress to agree on a deficit reduction plan.

King he would support continued sales of bonds as long as there isn’t an inflationary impact on the dollar.

Summers also reiterated his support for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.

The debate featured some low-key jabs. King challenged Summers’ policy knowledge at several points. Summers, in turn, hit King on his fiscal management of state government. Dill tried to cast both candidates as beneficiaries of a political system that’s rigged for the wealthy and connected.

Dill and King joined to oppose a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Summers said the decision preserved corporations’ free-speech rights.

Dill disagreed. She said Republicans’ endorsement of the Citizens United decision showed that the party is more interested in giving rights “to corporations” than women.

King called the decision one of the worst of his lifetime, but said it’s unlikely that there would be political support for a constitutional amendment to reverse it. He said Congress should instead push for more disclosure in political spending.

The candidates also addressed the tenor of the campaign.

King, who has been targeted by over $1.3 million in spending by outside groups, said he has kept his promise to run a positive campaign. King said that isn’t the case with Summers and his Republican surrogates.

King pointed to a Republican tracker in the crowd, indicating that the man was paid by Republicans to follow the former governor and take pictures and video of him on the campaign trail.

“I think he wants to get a picture of me slugging a baby,” King joked.

Trackers have become common in modern campaigns. King said it is further evidence that politics have become too cynical.

The Summers campaign, via one of several emails designed to counter King’s positions, noted that King ran negative ads during his run for governor in 1994.

The three other independent candidates, Steve Woods of Yarmouth, Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, and Danny Dalton of Brunswick, were not invited to the live debate. They were invited to participate in an online forum.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com