GILBERTSVILLE — Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said his Democratic opponent Bruce Lunsford "won't have the ability" to represent the state in the Senate, while Lunsford countered that McConnell has done a poor job of it over the last 24 years.
McConnell mentioned projects and programs for which he secured federal funding, while Lunsford enumerated the costs of unpopular policies backed by McConnell and called for change.
McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, defended his role in crafting national policies, such as the recent $700 billion banking industry bailout and a potential economic stimulus plan in the works.
His clout "is a direct result of your having confidence in me and sending me there," McConnell said. "I get to be in the room at the end. None of those decisions are easy. Many of them are controversial. But I never miss an opportunity — I assure you — never one opportunity to advance the commonwealth of Kentucky."
Lunsford, a Louisville businessman, spent much of the debate drawing a distinction between the amount in funds per Kentuckian McConnell has directed to the state with the cost per person of the war in Iraq, the national debt and the $700 billion bailout for banks and Wall Street investment firms.
"Now that bad policy is a whole lot more important than that little bit of money that Kentucky gets back," Lunsford said. "And good policy gives everybody opportunity."
McConnell holds a four-point lead in a Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll released Wednesday.
Underscoring the competitiveness, the debate — sponsored by the Paducah Sun business journal and the third forum in which the two have faced each other during the campaign — drew some big names. Among those attending were four former Democratic governors — Julian Carroll, John Y. Brown Jr., Martha Layne Collins and Paul Patton — and current Gov. Steve Beshear.
McConnell's supporters included Senate President David Williams and McConnell's wife, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
There was no mention of the veterans health clinics for which Lunsford serves as a director that have been the subject of McConnell's ads. And Lunsford didn't accuse McConnell of being corrupt by voting in favor of special interests, as he alleged in earlier commercials. Instead, the two clashed over issues such as nuclear power and the economy.
Specifically, Lunsford said he would have voted against the bailout bill, which Congress crafted to help banks and investment firms that had been poisoned by toxic securities based on sub-prime mortgages. He said the bill didn't provide enough oversight and didn't do enough for home owners facing foreclosure.
And saddling more debt onto an already accelerating $10 trillion deficit that will have to be paid off by future taxpayers "is a selfish thing for our generation to do," he said.
McConnell, a skilled debater who was first elected in 1984, let no shot from Lunsford go unchallenged.
He said the nation's increased debt started after the country's response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And he defended the $700 billion financial package, which he called an economic "rescue bill," noting that Republican and Democratic leaders, including both presidential candidates, supported it.
"This doesn't solve every problem. We knew it when we passed it," McConnell said. "But it solved some problems. The credit crunch is beginning to go away."
On the issue of energy, McConnell pressed Lunsford on whether he would support more nuclear power.
McConnell called for more investment in nuclear power, a popular stance in Western Kentucky. Paducah is home to a uranium enrichment plant.
When Lunsford said "we would have to look at nuclear," McConnell responded with: "Here's a guy within a few miles of the uranium enrichment pant who wouldn't say flat out we need more nuclear.
"We need to start here today and we need more nuclear plants in America without a doubt," McConnell said.
Lunsford later told reporters he would support resuming construction of nuclear power plants.