PADUCAH — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul showed sharp differences on major issues like immigration, unionization and term limits in the third debate of their U.S. Senate race Thursday morning.
During the nearly hour-long debate sponsored by the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce, Paul also said publicly for the first time that he would vote in a Senate Republican caucus for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville to lead the GOP.
He has said before that he supports McConnell for the leadership position but has hedged to say he would vote for whomever the caucus selects. That gave rise to speculation that he might back U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, for the leadership position.
Questioned by a panel of journalists, Conway and Paul disagreed on most issues during the debate in front of about 300 people at the Carson Center in downtown Paducah.
On illegal immigration, Paul said he supports rights of states like Arizona to try to curb the problem on their own. "It's bankrupting border states," he said.
Conway said he supports a "tough, sensible and fair" system of dealing with illegal immigrants, adding that he favors more border agents.
"If someone is here illegally and committing crimes, send them back, and let's take people out of the shadows and turn them into taxpayers," Conway said.
Asked after the debate about his stance on Arizona's law aimed at curbing illegal immigration, Conway said, "It's not a question of support or oppose. It's a question of the federal government stepping up and doing the right thing."
A federal judge has blocked implementation of the most controversial portions of Arizona's law, including provisions that allowed police to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws and required immigrants to prove they were in the country legally or risk state charges.
The two candidates were divided on the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor to unionize workers.
Conway, the state's attorney general, said he favors it, while Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first bid for public office, spoke against it.
The proposed measure is currently stalled in Congress. It would allow workers to unionize if at least 50 percent of them filled out the card, a change from the secret balloting system now in place.
On the issue of a national sales tax, Paul said he favors simplification of federal taxes but said federal spending needs to be controlled before changes are made in the tax code.
Conway accused Paul of backing away from a proposal to replace the federal income tax with a federal sales tax proposal, which Paul favored in a questionnaire circulated by an anti-tax group.
Conway said a national sales tax could lead to a 23 percent tax on items ranging from groceries to drugs.
On term limits for members of the Congress, Conway said he does not favor them but does favor reforms of campaign finance laws.
Paul said he favors term limits, suggesting six two-year terms for House members and two six-year terms for senators. He noted that 96 percent of incumbents get re-elected.
On health care, Paul said he favors repeal of the federal health insurance overhaul Congress passed this year with the backing of Democratic President Barack Obama. Conway has said he wants to improve the reform package and not repeal all of it.
Paul also claimed that the legislation raises deductibles on current Medicare recipients, noting that Conway has tried to make Medicare deductibles a key issue in the race and has distorted his position on it.
Conway has been running campaign ads in which Paul suggests several times that a $2,000 deductible may be the answer to Medicare's funding problems. Paul has said he would not favor higher deductibles for current recipients but changes will have to be made for future retirees.
A staffer for the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who engineered the legislation, said the law does not raise Medicare deductibles for current enrollees.
Both candidates expressed concern about federal spending for special projects but showed some difference of opinion.
Asked if they would work with McConnell to back $50 million in federal funds for Paducah's riverfront development, Paul said he would be "an advocate for all of Kentucky in context of a balanced budget."
He stopped short of endorsing any specific project.
Conway borrowed a phrase Paul has used in earlier debates, saying, "Let me interpret for you. He doesn't support the Paducah riverfront."
Conway said he would work with McConnell to get the funding.
Both candidates said they support federal funding for providing health care for workers and clean-up of problems at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a uranium-enrichment facility.
Paul said he supports abolition of the U.S. Department of Energy, which has assisted the plant, but that does not mean all its functions would go away.
The candidates will debate for the fourth time Sunday night at the University of Louisville.
Their final debate is scheduled for Oct. 25 on the Kentucky Educational Television network.
Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep and The Associated Press contributed to this story.