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ST. LOUIS • Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley said Thursday night that he opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare to help erase the nation’s ballooning deficits and debt.

Breaking with a suggestion by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Hawley said that if cuts needed to be made, lawmakers should look at taking federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act.

“I do not support cutting Social Security or Medicare. I think it is vital we protect these programs that Americans have paid into with their hard-earned cash,” Hawley said at an hourlong, televised debate against his rival, Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general, and McCaskill, who is seeking her third term, are in a neck-and-neck race that could decide the partisan makeup of the Senate.

The candidates clashed on questions about the growing deficit, gun restrictions and the Affordable Care Act among other issues.

“Josh’s campaign has a tortured relationship with the truth,” McCaskill said at one point.

Hawley, for his part, cast McCaskill as a “good person” who nonetheless “does not represent this state anymore.”

“She has become a party-line liberal,” he said.

McCaskill is considered vulnerable as one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states won by President Donald Trump in 2016. Like other members of her party, McCaskill has focused heavily on health care and is hoping dissatisfaction with the president over issues such as tariffs will lift her to victory.

Hawley, who is serving in his first political office, has campaigned alongside Trump and is hoping the president’s 19-point victory in 2016 will help send him to Washington after just two years on the job in Missouri.

McCaskill also agreed that Social Security and Medicare should not be touched to offset the effects of Republican tax cuts on the deficit.

But, she added, “We need to fix the problems in Obamacare, not throw it out.”

McCaskill chided Hawley after he said he would not support reversing the Trump tax cuts in order to bring down the deficit.

“The Republican Party loves to talk about debt and deficits until they are in charge. Then it’s crickets,” McCaskill said.

The sometimes testy exchange came in a week filled with sniping over video footage of McCaskill’s campaign taken by a conservative group known for “sting” videos of liberal organizations.

In response, McCaskill called on Hawley to investigate the group behind the video, Project Veritas.

Videos show an unidentified man asking McCaskill and staffers about the candidate’s position on banning bump stocks for firearms, Planned Parenthood, the border wall and impeaching Trump.

That issue did not come up in the debate, which was dominated by talk of health care.

The two also discussed gun control and gun safety.

Hawley said he would “fix” the firearms background check system to include more information about mental health issues of potential gun owners.

McCaskill said she supported the Second Amendment.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t have gun safety measures,” McCaskill said.

She supports a universal background check system and a ban on bump stocks, which can transform a rifle into a near-automatic weapon.

On arming teachers to make schools safer, both said that it was a decision for local school districts.

“I would never support using federal money to buy guns for schools,” McCaskill said.

Hawley said he wasn’t opposed to using federal money for arming teachers, but only in districts that want it.

The two also squared off on the tariffs imposed by Trump on China, showing they are far apart on the issue affecting farmers and other Missouri industries.

“The tariffs are brutal for Missouri,” McCaskill said. “These tariffs have killed commodity prices. This is where a senator from Missouri has to stand tall for agriculture.”

Hawley said he supported the tariffs as a way to bring China to the negotiating table.

“We are in a trade war. If we’re going to be in the war, I want to win it,” Hawley said.

On global warming, Hawley acknowledged that humans had contributed to climate change. But, he said, he nonetheless wants to clamp down on regulations that overburden businesses.

“I think this has got to be done in proportion,” Hawley said.

McCaskill said the federal government must do better when it came to addressing climate change.

“The climate change is real. It’s time to trust our scientists,” McCaskill said.

Neither candidate was asked about new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Hawley has made his support of Kavanaugh — and McCaskill’s opposition to his nomination — a centerpiece of his campaign.

The debate was moderated by PBS Newshour broadcaster Judy Woodruff and was presented by Nine Network (KETC), St. Louis Public Radio and KSDK (Channel 5).

Hawley and McCaskill also will meet in a debate in Kansas City on Oct. 25 hosted by television station KMBC 9 News.

Also in the race are independent Craig O’Dear and Libertarian and Green Party candidates, Japeth Campbell and Jo Crain, respectively. None was invited to Thursday’s debate.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch