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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's ties to Russia are front and center in the California Republican's increasingly heated re-election contest.
The GOP lawmaker is locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Harley Rouda, who teed off on Rohrabacher's links to the Kremlin during their first debate Monday.
Tense moments peppered the debate as the incumbent defended his pro-Russia record and accused his opponent of trying to impeach President Donald Trump. Immigration, health care as well as the economy and environment were among other issues that came up during the taped forum, which is scheduled to air locally Sunday.
Some of the most contentious moments, though, were during the discussion about Russia and the ongoing probe into Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"Yes, we should cooperate with Russia now that it's no longer our major threat, meaning the primary threat," said Rohrabacher, a 15-term congressman representing California's 48th Congressional District. "Right now we have to deal with radical Islam and China, and Russia. We should cooperate where we can with Russia, rather than being unrelentingly hostile."
Rouda, a lawyer and real estate developer, has run Russia-focused ads touting the vulnerable congressman's ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Democrat criticized Rohrabacher on Monday for siding against U.S. intelligence agencies and giving Russia a pass on interference in the 2016 presidential election. He also accused him of "meeting with Russian operatives."
"Rep. Rohrabacher has said that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that were staffed by working men and women from diverse background, including our U.S. military ... were all wrong," Rouda said during the Monday debate, "that the Russians had nothing to do with meddling with our elections."
A Los Angeles Times/UC Berkeley poll released last month showed Rohrabacher and Rouda tied at 48 percent. The poll found 10 percent of registered Republicans and 45 percent of undecided voters were less likely to vote for Rohrabacher because of his Russian ties.
In bringing up the topic of Russia, debate moderator Rick Reiff, a reporter for a PBS SoCal program, "Inside OC," remarked: "Sometimes it's a standing joke among some folks that you're Putin's buddy, Putin's lapdog, whatever."
Rohrabacher responded by saying reports of his connections to Russia have created "all of this nonsense — this fake news."
The Orange County congressman explained that he's chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, which has jurisdiction over relations with Russia.
Rohrabacher said when he worked in the White House for President Ronald Reagan he had a role in the famous "tear down this wall" speech during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The speech was made by Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987.
"I was Ronald Reagan's speechwriter for 7 years, and a special assistant to the president," Rohrabacher said. "I'm the guy who actually smuggled the 'tear down the wall' speech to the president, so I have impeccable credentials there."
During the debate, Rohrabacher accused Rouda of "toxic partisanship" and claimed the candidate told others he wants to impeach Trump.
"Spending our time trying to impeach and obstruct this president will grind the federal government to a halt," Rohrabacher said. "We don't need that in Washington, D.C."
Rouda insisted, "I'm not going there to impeach Donald Trump." But he said the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller should be given more time if needed.
"He's already gotten over 30 convictions and indictments," Rouda said. "We know that his work is meaningful. Let's give him the time. After we see that report then we can all make a decision, what, if anything, needs to take place."
That said, the Democrat maintained that the election "isn't about Trump. This is about what all of us need to do. We need to get rid of the extremism in politics. We need to fight for what we believe in. But again, reach across the aisle and serve our country and community."
Rohrabacher said the Russia probe was "another example of the obstructionism" and partisanship by Democrats.
"The bottom line is, Mueller was appointed to try to find out if there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign," said Rohrabacher. "There's been nothing that has been discovered about that. Instead, he (Mueller) has used that to look into everything else besides that."
Republicans have a nearly 10 percentage point registration advantage in the 48th District. Still, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly 2 points in 2016.
Meantime, Rohrabacher said he "agrees with many things that this president has done."
For example, he said Trump's "policies and principles are taking our country in the right direction." Rohrabacher cited the administration's tough trade policies as one example.
Regardless, the veteran congressman described himself as an "independent Republican" who sometimes is at odds with the Trump administration, including opposing the GOP-led federal tax plan since "it wasn't good for Orange County."
Rohrabacher also said he's taken on Attorney General Jeff Sessions when it comes to legalization of cannabis, which he said is an issue that should be decided at the state and local level.
Elsewhere, Rohrabacher said he views immigration and border security as a top issue for Americans. He said the nation is still struggling to "try to get control of our borders, where we've had 30 million illegals crossing into our country over the last 20 to 30 years."
According to the congressman, undocumented immigrants are "draining" taxpayer money, including for health care, education and veterans programs. He also accused Rouda of being "willing to give Medicare to illegal immigrants."
Rohrabacher said he opposes giving citizenship to so-called Dreamers — those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
"When it comes to the Dreamers, anybody who is here illegally, if we legalize their status, there's going to be millions more who come here," Rohrabacher said. "We care about these young people, but we care more about our own families."
Rouda responded, "Let me be very clear. Rep. Rohrabacher wants to deport everyone who is here undocumented. And he wants to charge them, (and) actually submitted a bill to Congress to charge them, a million dollars each to come back, to build the wall."
The Democrat said he supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a bipartisan immigration bill known as S.B. 744 that passed the Senate in 2013 but never was considered in the House. It would have allowed a large majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a pathway to citizenship, including Dreamers.
"That legislation could have passed in the House of Representatives," said Rouda. But he said the Republican House leadership refused to put the legislation to a vote and added that Rohrabacher also opposed it. "That's what's wrong with Washington," he said.
Finally, Rouda said he's opposed to offshore oil drilling. The Trump administration has said it wants to expand offshore oil drilling along the California coast.
California's 48th District runs along the Orange County coastline, from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel.
Rohrabacher, who has been a longtime supporter of oil drilling off the California coast, said in his closing remarks that his challenger "personally benefited" from oil sector investments. A spokesperson for Rouda didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.