DES MOINES | Christie Vilsack went after U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, Thursday night, calling him a “bully” and “an embarrassment” within the first few minutes of their first 4th Congressional District debate.

It was an attack that caught the 10-year incumbent off-guard and appeared to leave him flummoxed and on the defensive.

King admitted as much when he was asked by moderator Gary Barrett to ask a question of Vilsack about midway through the 55-minute debate broadcast live from WHO Radio in Des Moines.

“I’m a little surprised here the way things have gone; I’m a little caught off balance,” King said.

King then seemed to play the role of peacemaker asking Vilsack if she could “name three things that we might agree on?”

She responded the two could find some common ground on the need to build the Keystone Pipeline, that parts of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be thrown out and a shared love of Labrador retrievers.

It was the first of two scheduled debates – the other is scheduled for Saturday at the Clay County Fair in Spencer. The two campaigns have indicated they may hold as many as eight, including one in Sioux City.

The newly drawn 4th Congressional District covers 39 counties in the Northwest part of the state. It stretches from the Missouri River as far east as Chickasaw County and covers the population centers of Ames, Sioux City and Mason City.

King has been in Congress for a decade and has easily defeated previous challengers. Former Iowa first lady Vilsack said his tenure has been marked by a proclivity to promote himself instead of the interests of his constituents. King, who is often sought out by national news media for his conservative opinions, responded that he feels his job is to represent the district and fight the ideological battle for America as a whole.

“My job is to carry a message. My job is to move our Iowa agenda in the nation,” King said. “Where would the liberals take us? We would be one huge Greece.”

Vilsack also went after King and Congress for failing to get a farm bill passed. King, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said the legislation is tied up on food stamp policy.

Both said that 2010 health care law, often referred to as Obamacare, needs to be changed. Vilsack’s approach would be to keep some parts and get rid of others, like the personal mandate requiring everyone to have health insurance. King’s solution is to repeal the entire package.

King supports a federal balanced budget amendment, while Vilsack called it “a gimmick.” King scoffed and asked Vilsack why a balanced budget law was good for Iowa, but not the country.

Meeting with reporters after the debate, King said he was expecting “a kinder and gentler” Vilsack on Thursday and dismissed her criticisms as coming “from left-wing websites.”

Asked about the assertion, Vilsack said she believes what she says and everything that comes from her campaign can be backed up.

As for her aggressiveness in the debate, she said, “It’s my job to make the contrast and that’s what I want to do. I want to make sure that people know what I think about the issues but I also want to make sure that they understand what Congressman King has done.”