HONOLULU - Democratic U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle don't agree on much in their race for U.S. Senate, but they both like Big Bird.
The "Sesame Street" icon-turned 2012 political hot topic played an upfront role in a freewheeling debate Thursday night that aired statewide in Hawaii on PBS.
It was the second of three debates in seven days for Lingle and Hirono as they push toward the Nov. 6 election, with early voting set to begin next week.
The debate began with moderator Dan Boylan bringing out a stuffed doll of Big Bird and asking if cuts to PBS are serious.
Lingle at first said she's friends with the chief executive of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and that she's been a supporter of PBS, backing off remarks from a previous debate that PBS should be considered for cuts along with other programs if they're not deemed essential.
"Linda seems to have changed her mind," Hirono said.
Lingle then clarified her previous comments, saying she was talking about PBS in the context of the rest of the nation's spending.
"It's going to be very important for people to look across the spectrum of how we spend our money and set some priorities," Lingle said. "I did say I'm not sure that Big Bird is essential to the defense of America."
From there, Hirono and Lingle sparred on national and state issues, including taxes, national defense and Medicare in a loose format that didn't have any real structure at all - no timekeepers, no equally timed rebuttals and plenty of skipping from topic to topic.
Both candidates reiterated well-rehearsed positions: Hirono argued that Lingle is representative of a national Republican Party that has values different from those of Hawaii, while Lingle argued that she has Hawaii top of mind and the state's long-term interests are best served with one Democrat and one Republican in the Senate.
But the debate moved in tangents that challenged both candidates to explain themselves more deeply than in previous debates, since there was no bell to save them from talking further.
Lingle pressed Hirono on her vote that helped set up the so-called "fiscal cliff" scenario set to take effect in January if Congress can't reach a compromise on spending cuts and tax hikes. Lingle said Hirono shouldn't have supported cuts of $50 billion per year to the military as part of the deal, because the cuts would have crushing effects in Hawaii given the large military presence here.
"We can't do a pivot if we're cutting $50 billion" per year in defense, Lingle said.
Hirono said Congress was right to raise the debt ceiling and needs to reach sensible compromise to avoid the deep cuts planned but said Republicans are holding things up because they're not willing to allow taxes to go up for the wealthiest Americans.
"We now have a Congress . . . where people are perfectly fine sending our country over the economic cliff," Hirono said.
Later in the debate, Lingle compared today's times with the period between World War I and World War II to say the United States shouldn't let up on its defense spending or become more isolated.
Hirono retorted that nobody's talking about weakening national defense, but Tea Party Republicans have said the United States should worry more about itself than other countries.
Hirono pressed Lingle on her time as governor, attacking on issues of a botched interisland ferry system and the shutdown of Aloha Airlines.
Lingle was ready for the Aloha Airlines attack, pulling out a letter from the former CEO in support of her efforts and passing it across the table to Hirono.
The winner of the seat will replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat who is retiring, and serve with U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, current chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.