HONOLULU - For Democratic rivals Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa, politics is all about relationships.
Schatz says he's been surprised at how many friends he's made as a freshman U.S. senator. Hanabusa says her time in state government before getting to the U.S. House shows how she's earned respect and the confidence of peers.
And Hawaii needs those relationships, both candidates said during their first debate Tuesday night on Kauai. Schatz and Hanabusa are vying to fill the final two years of deceased U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye's term through 2016.
Schatz, the incumbent appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie after Inouye's death in 2012, said he's been working with lawmakers he often disagrees with on issues where they share common ground.
Hanabusa, Inouye's favored pick to succeed him, says collaboration is key in a Republican-dominated House.
"Relationships are critical in terms of how things get done," said Hanabusa, who touted efforts with Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young on American Indian and Alaska Native issues and Virginia U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes on the U.S. military rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.
"Those relationships end up mattering to all of us," said Schatz, who said he's built up rapport with young senators who have young kids and ambitious families. "We all hang out and spend time together."
Clashes were few and mostly technical during the evening debate.
Both candidates agreed on doing more to help veterans health care, but Schatz disagreed with Hanabusa's support for expanding a hospital in Guam.
"I don't think Brian understands what Guam is about," Hanabusa responded.
Schatz said he does understand, but the project would take too long if it even makes sense.
"Our focus should be on investing in projects that can be done right away," he said.
Neither candidate supports military action in Iraq, but while Schatz said the situation is unclear, Hanabusa said President Barack Obama is unclear about why he's sending troops to the country.
"Why get involved in a sectarian civil war?" she said.
On genetically modified foods, Hanabusa said the federal government still needs to study the issue, while Schatz said counties should be allowed to pass their own laws.
Fewer than 200 people attended the debate, with Schatz and Hanabusa supporters sitting on opposite sides of the room at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall. The debate was organized by the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, broadcast on radio on Kauai and streamed live online.
The candidates planned to debate again tonight on the Big Island.