NEEDHAM -- The Republican opposing Democrat Joseph Kennedy III for a U.S. House seat said in a debate that Kennedy is running on his family name and lacks the qualifications to be in Congress.
Kennedy, the son of former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, responded to Sean Bielat by saying he was proud of his family's legacy but was confident he could earn every vote on his own.
Kennedy and Bielat, a businessman and U.S. Marine Corps reservist, met Thursday at the studios of WCVB-TV. The 30-minute debate will be aired by the station on Sunday.
Kennedy and Bielat are vying for the 4th Congressional District seat held by Democrat Barney Frank, who's retiring.
Bielat, responding to a question from moderators about the candidates' qualifications, said to Kennedy: "I don't think in any other state, in any other district in the country people would consider you qualified for this office."
He said Kennedy seems like a "great guy" and he wasn't attacking his character, but, "Other than fame that comes with your family and money that comes with it, you don't have the background."
Bielat, 37, said his experience in private business and the military qualified him for the seat.
Kennedy, 31, strongly defended his qualifications, pointing to his record as a prosecutor in the Middlesex and Cape & Islands district attorney's offices and before that as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
"I'm honored by my family's legacy of public service and what they have done here in Massachusetts and for our country," said Kennedy, the first of his generation in the family to seek elective office. "But from Day 1, it has been my name on the ballot."
Kennedy said he continued to campaign vigorously throughout the district, which stretches from the western Boston suburbs to southeastern Massachusetts.
The candidates touched on several other issues including taxes, Medicare and Iran.
Bielat indicated that while he backed across-the-board tax relief, he might vote for a plan to extend tax cuts even if it did not include people in the highest-income brackets, a condition many other Republicans have insisted upon.
"Some tax cuts are better than no tax cuts," Bielat said.
Kennedy said he'd consider embracing Republican proposals to lower corporate taxes and close loopholes. He alluded to the ability of his late great-uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, to reach across party lines to find consensus on major issues.
Kennedy criticized Bielat for backing a Medicare voucher plan offered by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, saying it would "fundamentally change" the program and add costs of up to $640 a year for seniors.
Bielat said there was "misinformation" surrounding the Ryan plan and it would give seniors the option of remaining with traditional Medicare or using vouchers in the private market.
Regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Democrat said that while there was still time for a diplomatic solution he supported President Barack Obama's threat of military intervention if it became necessary.
"All options need to be on the table," Kennedy said.
Bielat said the U.S. needed to be more "aggressive" when it came to Iran and accused the Obama administration of "turning its back" on Israel in the crisis.
The debate was the first of three scheduled before the Nov. 6 election. Bielat is critical of Kennedy for not accepting additional debates. Kennedy said three debates were "fine," given the short amount of time before the election.