DENVER — Conservatives and progressives duked it out over policy Wednesday morning ahead of the first presidential debate of 2012 at the University of Denver.

The Heritage Foundation and The Independence Institute hosted a wide-ranging pre-presidential policy debate in Denver, featuring policy experts and commentators from both sides of the political aisle.

The economy and job creation, immigration, health care, entitlement spending, and energy were among the contentious topics or “bucket” issues discussed by the speakers.

Conservative panelists included Bill Beach, director of Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis and author of The Index of Dependence on Government. Beach was joined Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at Heritage; Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president and director of energy policy at The Independence Institute; and former Rep. Bob Beauprez of Colorado.

On the progressive side, Stanley L. Garnett, district attorney for Colorado’s 20th Judicial District, was joined by Carol Hedges, director of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute; Angie Layton, a political activist in Colorado, and former Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin.

Beauprez challenged the benefits of the stimulus devised under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, detailing poor economic figures ranging from unemployment, a diminished labor force.

According to Beauprez, “That’s the bottom line, it hasn’t worked.”

Underscoring the policy differences, Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute Director Carol Hedges argued that public-sector investment spurs economic growth — and creates jobs.

“What we’re avoiding in the discussion is the role that the public sector actually plays in making sure that jobs are, in fact, created. Now nobody is going to suggest that the government is the place where all jobs come from, as we are often accused of doing, but in reality there is a point at which the public sector must invest in things like transportation, education, research and development … things that actually level the playing field,” Hedges said.

The role of government in the health care field zeroed in on health care access.

Heritage’s Franc insisted on market solutions to address coverage and preexisting conditions.

“There are ways at getting to these problems that are much more efficient than what we’ve seen in the blunderbuss, meat-cleaver approach that we have right now,” said Franc.

Heritage’s Beach, in speaking about his own health-care issues, argued that the lack of competition is a cost-driver.

“One of the reasons why we have high costs for treatment is that we don’t have a lot of competition in health care,” said Beach. The cost of treatment for preexisting conditions could be reduced, Beach argued, by reducing costs through competition.

Beach cited his own cancer treatment as an example.

“Create customers who are patients so they can pick and choose,” he said.

In the conservative vs. progressive tilt, terminology played a great role in the debate: Are tax credits, for example, subsidies or investments?

In that vein, Cooke challenged the need for production tax credits for wind energy.

“We are an economy that is powered by fossil fuels, like it or not. We have to have it. We demand energy right away. We want to be able to flip a switch and the light comes on,” she said.

Energy enables commerce, and the only reliable source at this time is carbon-based, Cooke argued. She pointed to government figures noting the per-MWh subsidies for all sources of energy, noting the disparity between fossil fuels and renewables.

For Layton, the argument over subsidies is about leveling the playing field for renewables.

“The idea that we’re in carbon and therefore have to continue with carbon is just like saying we had steam engines and we have to keep steam engines,” Layton said. Decades of fossil fuel subsidies justified subsidies for renewables, Layton argued, pointing to research and development expenditures at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory located in Golden, Colorado.

Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, and Eli Stokols, political reporter for KDVR-TV Fox 31 Denver, moderated the debate.