With just nine days until the Nov. 2 election, Congressman Jim Himes, D-4, and his opponent, state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, ratcheted up their campaign rhetoric by trading sharp attacks during a debate in Wilton tonight.

As in previous debates, the stimulus bill, health care reform and fiscal policy emerged as the principal points of contention.

In defending his vote for the 2009 stimulus bill, Himes argued that it had prevented the American economy from falling into a depression.

"It was part of getting us to where we are today, where the economy is now growing," Himes said. "We are now adding jobs in the private sector for nine straight months."

Debicella countered that the stimulus had focused too much on saving the jobs of "government bureaucrats" and that it had failed to produce true economic recovery in the private sector.

"All this did was build up an unsustainable deficit for our children," Debicella said.

During the 90-minute debate at Wilton High School, which was sponsored by several local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the candidates offered frequently contrasting visions of the role of government, particularly at the federal level.

Debicella, in particular, framed the election as not just a choice between the two candidates, but as a referendum on the performance of the current U.S. Congress.

"If you agree that Washington is getting it right, then vote for Jim Himes," he said. "He's voted over 94 percent of the time with [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi."

Himes similarly lambasted his opponent for his voting record, alleging repeatedly that Debicella had the worst voting record on environmental issues of any Connecticut state senator during the last 10 years.

"To say I'm the worst senator on the environment? Jim, you'll just say anything to be re-elected," Debicella replied.

The candidates also squabbled over campaign contributions, with each contending that the other had received money from special interest groups.

Disagreement on health care reform, however, produced more equanimous debate between the two candidates

"It increases costs on the 94 percent of us with insurance to cover the other six percent," Debicella said.

As alternatives, Debicella suggested that tort reform, interstate competition between health care providers, and incentives for preventative medicine would bring down health care costs.

Himes, however, said that the health care reform passed last March by Congress featured a number of benefits, including the elimination of lifetime caps on coverage, barring insurance companies from not insuring patients with pre-existing conditions, and allowing children to remain on their parents' plans until the age of 26.

"It's not perfect, but it's an historic step forward," Himes said. "In the decade to come, let's find what works, and make it better."

Perhaps surprisingly, as the debate wore on, Himes and Debicella increasingly espoused similar views on a number of issues, including the war in Afghanistan.

"We don't have a partner there in [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai," Himes said. As opposed to having a nation-building objective in Afghanistan, Himes advocated that the U.S. should maintain "just enough presence to go after the terrorists."

Debicella generally agreed with Himes, and also backed a "slow drawdown" of troops there, similar to the withdrawal of American armed forces from Iraq.