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Frank And Bielat, Rivals Who Relish The Fight04:03
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The race between Rep. Barney Frank and his Republican opponent, Marine reservist Sean Bielat, is getting sharper. The two met in another televised debate Thursday. This time, one point of contention was Social Security.

One of the sharpest exchanges between Frank and Bielat began with a question to Bielat from WGBH-FM host Emily Rooney about when people should be able to collect Social Security.

"I think that we need to allow individuals to allot a portion of their Social Security payment to an individual account," Bielat said.

"Partial privatization," Rooney interjected.

In the 4th Congressional District, the race is still witty and high-minded and lots of fun.

"Correct, so that they have access to that when they retire," Bielat replied.

"At what age?" Rooney asked.

"I don't know," Bielat responded. "I could sit here today and tell you that it's 68 or 72, or..."

Frank didn't miss a beat.

"He just suggested 72," Frank pointed out.

"I didn't just suggest 72," Bielat objected.  "It was a hypothetical."

"Mr. Bielat, you just said that," Frank said. "You just said — I'm sorry you don't like what you say — but please don't blame me for repeating it. You said, 'Could be 68. I don't know if it's 68, I don't now if it's 72.' I think it's a grave mistake to even suggest that you might get to 72 in Social Security. "

"This is demagoguery," Bielat said, "but go ahead."

"Well, it's demagoguery when I quote what you said," Frank replied. "You said that it might be 72. I think that that's a grave mistake. I think frankly part of the problem is that you're not familiar with the district we both want to represent. You go to Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton. You go to people who have been working physically hard all their lives, whether they are men or women, and tell them that..."

"I think I know more about hard labor than you do," Bielat interjected, "but go ahead."

"I understand that you don't like it when I try to make points that you're sort of embarrassed by," Frank said, "but I'm going to continue."

Both men are so good at arguing with each other it's as if a team of writers was scripting these debates. By this point, Frank and Bielat are like an old couple when they get together. They seem to relish needling each other.They appear comfortable with the idea that they're running against each other, even though Bielat's race against Frank has only taken off in the last few weeks. They get testy but they never stop being good-natured, and they keep the debate to the issues.

The Debate Spills Into The Halls

Most of the time, after a debate, the candidates go off to their corners and take questions from reporters separately. In this case, like a good passionate discussion, their debate spilled out into the halls of WGBH. Frank was talking about how Bielat likes the ideas of Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin who wants to reform Social Security and Medicare.

"He supports Paul Ryan," Frank announced, "and wishes that Paul Ryan's ideas were in the Republican pledge, and that's why he hadn't supported the Republican Pledge. Mr. Bielat will object that I sent it, but I will send you the copy of his statement, if you like, refusing the Republican pledge, because it didn't include Paul Ryan's ideas on entitlements."

"He can send it, if he can find it, or write it himself, because it didn't happen," Bielat said, coming upon the scene of reporters around Frank.

"But you have said that you support Paul Ryan's ideas," I tell Bielat.

"I did say because (the Republican Pledge) didn't have entitlement reform," Bielat allowed. "I absolutely said that."

For Bielat, this campaign against Frank, in which he says he's gathering large numbers of small contributions from around the country, is still very new. The extent of how new his campaign is revealed itself a few moments later. Bielat was still talking to reporters about Social Security.

"It's about getting down and figuring out what good approaches are, and right now Barney Frank and too many people's positions in Congress positions are...umm..."

Bielat noticed that a photographer working for Frank was taking pictures.

"You know, we can send you some," Bielat said.

"Get used to it, dude," the photographer replied. "You want to be a congressman? This is nothing."

"Yeah, but you're with Barney, right?" Bielat asked.

"So?" the photographer challenged.

"That's cool," Bielat said.

Several minutes later, Bielat and Frank were still talking, on the street this time, about how appropriate the behavior of Frank's photographer was.

The governor's race has deteriorated into accusations about who stabbed whom in the back first. The debate in the 10th Congressional District has gotten nasty and personal. But in the 4th Congressional District, it is still witty and high-minded and lots of fun.

This program aired on October 15, 2010.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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