LOUISVILLE — In a warm-up for their only scheduled debate this fall, Kentucky's two major U.S. Senate candidates assailed each other as they discussed farm-related policy at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's "Measure the Candidates" forum.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, didn't break much new ground as they divided the afternoon into a punctuated stump speech by Grimes and wonkish filibusters by McConnell.
Grimes continued to declare McConnell's 30 years in office a failure, and McConnell continued his efforts to portray Grimes as a would-be rubber stamp for the Obama administration.
McConnell largely based his remarks on what he had accomplished for Kentucky farmers before a ban on earmark spending was implemented in 2011, noting his efforts to "kill the Death Tax," his role in the tobacco settlements, federal grants for agricultural programs at the state's universities and, most recently, his efforts to make Kentucky's hemp pilot projects legal.
The state's senior senator stuck to his central campaign theme that his re-election, which could make him Senate majority leader, is good for Kentucky.
Grimes largely stuck to familiar criticisms of McConnell, repeatedly blasting him as "out of touch" and accusing him of being the "common denominator" during three decades of bad Washington policies.
Watch the entire forum on Kentucky Farm Bureau's video replay:
The candidates argued about the farm bill that expired before a new version was passed this year, with Grimes accusing McConnell of being absent in its creation and saying that she had to "take issue" with McConnell's assertion that nobody was "disadvantaged by any of that."
"You see, I've been in the western part of the state and seen the eyes of a burly farmer swell up with tears at the thought of not having crop insurance," Grimes told the audience.
But as McConnell's campaign noted, crop insurance is a permanent, mandatory program that does not expire.
Grimes, speaking from the lectern and with her campaign trail cadence in effect, leaned heavily on a report that appeared Tuesday night in The Hill, which noted that McConnell has been absent for many agriculture committee meetings and conference committee meetings.
"Never has a senator been paid so much to do so little for the people of Kentucky," Grimes said. "And it has come at the expense of our farm families. I'm a firm believer (that) you reap what you sow."
When a reporter tried to ask Grimes after the forum how much time she has missed work as Kentucky secretary of state while campaigning, Grimes' press secretary Charly Norton cut the question off and went to another reporter.
McConnell countered criticism of his attendance record by saying that "Alison's friend and supporter Harry Reid must not have told her about how party leaders typically deal with committee work.
"Harry actually resigned from all his committees because you don't have time to do justice to committee work if you're one of the party leaders," McConnell said.
Grimes charged in her opening statement that McConnell "wants to run this race against everyone but me," and the senator went on to repeatedly warn that Grimes' first vote in the U.S. Senate would be a vote to extend Reid's tenure as majority leader.
On health care, Grimes continued to strike a delicate balance on the federal law pushed by President Barack Obama, accusing McConnell of wanting to cede control of the state's health care to the federal government instead of setting up its own health insurance exchange, as Gov. Steve Beshear did.
She said the law should be fixed, not repealed.
"I'll put 500,000 Kentuckians first always," Grimes said. To which McConnell quickly responded: "She won't use the words, but she supports Obamacare."
The candidates also clashed on the national debt, with Grimes blasting McConnell for contributing to it over 30 years, saying "there are 17 trillion reasons why Kentucky needs a new U.S. senator."
McConnell responded that the Obama administration has "been a spending machine."
Grimes went on to say she opposed the so-called sequestration spending cuts, which she called "arbitrary," that McConnell fought for in 2011. She instead called for cutting wasteful spending.
Grimes also repeatedly touted her jobs plan Wednesday, though she has not said how much it would cost to implement or how she would pay for it.
On immigration, McConnell called for doing away with talk of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, saying "we need to bust it up." He cited Obamacare and other proposals that he said had not been handled well because Congress used a "comprehensive approach."
Grimes continued to fault McConnell for voting against an immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate and failed in the U.S. House. If the bill had passed, "we might not see the crisis we see at the border today," she said.
Grimes also continued her efforts to portray McConnell as the architect of Washington dysfunction, saying that McConnell is "why President Barack Obama is wrongly ruling by executive order."
"Washington isn't working for us," Grimes said in closing. "After 30 years, regardless of who is in the White House or who he or she might be in the White House in years to come, the common denominator of the problems we are facing, it's Mitch McConnell."
She added: "He's the reason the mess exists."
McConnell closed by warning that Kentucky would face a "dramatic loss of influence" if Grimes were to win. He also hinted that he might have a partner in the White House in U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who is openly considering a bid in 2016.
"Every senator has a vote, but not every senator is equal," McConnell said. "So this is the chance this year for our delegation to be probably the most influential position it's ever been in. My colleague may even be president of the United States."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com