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Tillis, Hagan gear up for first U.S. Senate debate

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — North Carolina's leading U.S. Senate candidates finally meet in person to trade barbs live on statewide television.

Democrat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis are set for three debates in the race for Hagan's Senate seat. The first comes Wednesday at the University of North Carolina Television studios at Research Triangle Park.

Nearly $29 million already has been spent by the race's top two candidates and independent groups in the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hagan and other Democrats have targeted Tillis as her top rival since he announced his candidacy in May 2013.

Here are five things to look for from the candidates and the issues in the debate, moderated by CBS anchor Norah O'Donnell:

WASHINGTON VERSUS RALEIGH: The two candidates are expected to press upon the other's greatest perceived weaknesses. Hagan is likely to keep reminding viewers Tillis is the leader of an unpopular General Assembly in Raleigh that she says weakened voting rights, damaged public education and failed to expand Medicaid. Tillis, meanwhile, will do all he can to link Hagan to President Barack Obama, particularly for her vote to back the federal health care overhaul and for problems with Veterans Affairs medical centers, said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury: "The main opponents might seem to be Washington against Raleigh more than individuals running in the race."

SEVEN, 96 AND 500: Tillis is sure to mention the average 7 percent pay raises that public school teachers got this fall from the legislature. Critics have said the raises are actually very small for veteran teachers and the number hides his otherwise poor education record. Hagan's camp says $500 million has been cut from North Carolina public education the past two years under Tillis' watch. Republicans say the figure is misleading and that overall education spending has actually increased. Tillis also is expected to accuse Hagan of voting with Obama 96 percent of the time. All three numbers have shown up in recent TV ads.

OTHER ISSUES: With turmoil in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq simmering or boiling over, foreign policy should receive more attention in a race that's largely focused upon national or in-state politics. The nation's immigration policy could become debate fodder, as could last year's government shutdown and the candidates' differing views on abortion and gay marriage. Hagan supports legalizing gay marriage. Tillis was speaker when the legislature put North Carolina's gay marriage ban on the statewide ballot.

TILLIS' STORY: Democrats have depicted Tillis as the scheming engineer of the Republican insurgency in North Carolina, somebody who's joined at the hip with Karl Rove and the billionaire financier Koch brothers. Expect Tillis to try to paint his portrait as a former PTA president who grew up poor but climbed the work ladder to become an IBM consultant. He'll also likely take credit for a rebounding economy and lower unemployment through lower tax rates. For much of the electorate, however, he remains a blank canvass. Outside of Raleigh and Charlotte, "a lot of people don't know Thom Tillis," said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

HAGAN'S HISTORY: Hagan has spent the summer on television commercials talking about how she's "not too far left, not too far right. Just like North Carolina." But she also will want to make clear that being a moderate doesn't mean milquetoast in the U.S. Senate and to communicate her success to voters. Hagan lists many accomplishments in her first term, including help for victims of Camp Lejeune water contamination and addressing veterans' health care issues. Others have been incremental, in keeping with the Senate's gridlock. "This is an opportunity for to make that case," Cooper said.

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