HAGERSTOWN — Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, facing perhaps the fiercest challenge in his 20-year congressional career, engaged two opponents in a courtly debate Wednesday focusing mostly on the appropriate role of the federal government.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“What people want most from the government is for government to get out of the way,” said Bartlett, who was a founding member of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus.

Nickolaus Mueller, the Libertarian Party candidate, argued that even less would still be too much government.

Democratic nominee John K. Delaney struck a tone somewhere in the middle, saying he believed the federal government had an important role in guiding the nation’s economy.

“The government absolutely does not create the jobs. The private sector creates the jobs,” Delaney said. “But government puts the infrastructure in place, levels the playing field, creates the policies and procedures, regulates appropriately, and creates the right incentives so the private sector can be unleashed to create the jobs.”

Policy views aside, the most striking difference among the three candidates was generational: Bartlett, who talked about growing up during the Great Depression, is 86; Mueller, who said he knows about tuition costs as a recent college grad, is 27; Delaney is 49.

About 150 people attended the televised debate sponsored by the League of Women’s Voters in the Kepler Theatre on the campus of Hagerstown Community College. Questions from members of the league and the audience focused on topics such as abortion, health care, Social Security, energy policy and education. The 6th Congressional district race has become perhaps the most closely watched matchup in Maryland, with Bartlett looking vulnerable to an energetic and well-financed newcomer.

Bartlett, a Frederick resident who is seeking an 11th term in a newly redrawn district that now favors Democrats, cast himself as a traditional conservative. He said he would not raise taxes, as Americans are already taxed enough, but that all spending, including the Pentagon’s, should be reduced.

On health care, Bartlett said he supported the broader use of tax-free, individual medical accounts of up to $8,000 with which people could buy basic insurance plans and pay doctors’ bills.

“If it’s your money, you’re going to ask for the first time, ‘Hey, doc, how much is it going to cost?’” Bartlett said.

Bartlett also defended the Medicare plan proposed by GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, saying a voucher would allow people to choose between traditional Medicare coverage and alternatives in the private market.

On education, Bartlett said the government should give tax credits to donors or institutions that create scholarships for college students; he supports using vouchers for K-12 school choice and returning controls to the local level.

“I’m not sure there’s any evidence that the federal Department of Education has ever done anything to improve education,” Bartlett said. “They provide about 6 percent of the cost of education and would like to have 100 percent of the control.”

Delaney, a financier who lives in Potomac, steered a middle course in arguing that the federal government played an essential role in guiding the economy but that it must be lean and efficient. He backed the Bowles-Simpson commission’s path toward financial stability by combining spending cuts and higher taxes — a position, he said afterward, that put him at odds with other Democrats during the primary.

Delaney also said employment will lag unless the nation becomes more competitive. To do so means reforming its education system, overhauling immigration to admit skilled labor, and adopting an energy policy that leads to independence and cleaner, more advanced fuels.

On health care, Delaney said the United States must increase the government’s negotiating power to squeeze savings from pharmaceutical companies, increase the use of technology to streamline health-care administration, and focus more on preventive care. He rejected the idea of a Medicare voucher system because it would transfer risk from the government to the consumer. But he said Medicare should have budgetary restraints to limit the program’s growth and force it to become more efficient.

On education, Delaney said he believes the U.S. Department of Education serves an important role in driving reform and setting standards. But he also said he agreed on the need for more competition, such as vouchers.

“I think that the voucher program works particularly well...where the outcomes are clearly bad, because I think you really need to drive choice, and this is the ultimate way to drive choice,” Delaney said afterward. “I don’t believe you need to have vouchers in an area where schools are performing at an appropriate level.”

Mueller, with a nod to the late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, called for a government retreat on all fronts.

Mueller, who lives in Baltimore and works at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said he would phase out Medicare, Social Security, government-backed student loans, and controls on immigration. He sounded dubious about federal spending even for building roads or bridges. Whether talking about abortion, health care, taxes, social security or immigration, Mueller said society should be ruled by the maxim that individuals should be free to make their own decisions so long as the exercise of those freedoms cause no harm to others.

“I don’t want government getting involved in the decisions that should be left to individuals,” Mueller said.