BRANSON, Mo. — Democratic challenger Jason Kander sought to portray Republican Sen. Roy Blunt as part of the problem in Washington, not part of the solution, as the candidates met Friday in their first face-to-face debate.

Kander, Blunt and three third-party candidates spoke at a forum during the Missouri Press Association convention in Branson.

Kander, 35, the Missouri secretary of state, said he was called to public service while serving in the Army in Afghanistan, where he saw how poor political decisions impacted soldiers.

“Washington is broken and we’re not going to change Washington until we change the people that we send there,” Kander said.

That was a not-so-subtle shot at Blunt, 66, who served seven terms in the House before election to the Senate in 2010. But Blunt said experience matters, and this year’s election is potentially the most important ever, noting that the next Senate could vote on multiple Supreme Court nominees.

“I’ve been listening to Missourians, I’ve been fighting for Missourians, I’ve been trying to find solutions,” Blunt said.

Kander has spent the campaign highlighting his military experience and said during the debate that he doesn’t believe there are enough veterans in Congress. He said military people have a way of putting differences aside to meet the goals of a mission. Congress, he said, doesn’t work that way, citing what he called the slow response to the Zika virus.

But Blunt noted that he authored the measure that broke months of deadlock and provides $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus.

Asked about the possibility of free college tuition, Blunt called the proposal “without any idea of how to pay for it” foolish. He said a better idea is to expand the Pell Grant to help needy students.

But Kander noted that Blunt voted five years ago to cut the Pell Grant program.

“Senator, somebody who sets a fire and puts it out is not a fireman; he’s an arsonist,” Kander said.

Kander stood by his call for universal background checks to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. He acknowledged that the National Rifle Association is supporting Blunt, but said, “I would happily put my Army marksmanship badge up against a political rating any day of the week.”

Blunt said to Kander, “You got an ‘F’ from the NRA in the General Assembly — not easily done.”

Blunt said he understands Missouri, which he called a “diverse state with lots of opportunities.”

“Missourians deserve a Congress that will set priorities and look at their money and spend it in the most effective way possible and not take any more of it than is absolutely necessary,” Blunt said.

Kander said Blunt was himself a reformer early in his career but that Washington has changed him.