Sen. Gillibrand and GOP challenger Long debate

(AP) - Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican challenger Wendy Long traded barbs over the economy, abortion and natural gas exploration in a sometimes heated debate Wednesday night.

Gillibrand, far ahead of Long in the polls, fundraising and name recognition, has barely mentioned her Republican opponent. In contrast, Long has persistently attacked Gillibrand's record on the campaign trail. She finally got her chance to confront Gillibrand face-to-face at the debate televised from Skidmore College.

At one point, Long accused Gillibrand of doing nothing to create jobs in upstate New York.

"As I go around upstate, I see towns with empty storefronts, factories that have been shuttered paint peeling off of buildings and people desperate for work," Long said.

Gillibrand stood by her three-year record in the Senate over the hour-long debate, and hit Long back on her pledge to not raise taxes to balance the federal budget.

"We can tighten our belts. We can cut spending," Gillibrand said, "but we have to do it precisely and carefully. We cannot have a slash-only approach, like my opponent has."

Long, a New York City attorney making her first run for elected office, won a three-way Republican primary in June after campaigning on fiscal discipline, opposition to abortion and other conservative positions. Sharp distinctions were apparent Wednesday between Long and Gillibrand, who has championed same-sex marriage and women's rights.

In one of the most animated exchanges, Long spoke against the mandate that President Barack Obama announced in January requiring most employers to provide health insurance that covers birth control, a move opposed by many Roman Catholic groups.

"If I'm just a private person with a business, and I have faith that tells me that abortion, sterilization and contraception are evil, will I be forced to buy such a plan, to offer it to my employees?" Long asked.

Gillibrand countered that there is a movement to undermine women's basic rights.

"To say that's evil shows disregard for the ability of a woman to make that personal life-and-death decision about her own body," Gillibrand said.

The two candidates also argued over whether to allow the development of upstate New York's shale gas formations by hydraulic fracturing - or "hydro-fracking" - which is now being considered by the Cuomo administration.

Gillibrand said natural gas exploration could be an economic boon, but first it has to be determined if the chemicals used in the process threaten drinking water. Long was full-throated in support of development.

"All these concerns that you cite are just phony concerns," Long said.

Gillibrand is facing voters for the second time in two years after being tapped in 2009 to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who became U.S. secretary of state. Gillibrand won the right to finish out the final two years of Clinton's old term in 2010. This time, Gillibrand and Long are running for a full six-year term.

Gillibrand this week reported raising $15.2 million for her campaign so far, compared to $619,000 for Long, who entered the race this year. Gillibrand has begun spending down her millions with a statewide TV ad campaign, which include commercials in the pricey New York City market.

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