RICHMOND — With a little more than a week to go until Election Day, tempers are flaring in the race for governor, and Republican Matt Bevin brought some sharp elbows and questionable claims to Sunday night's debate against Democrat Jack Conway.
The debate, sponsored by Eastern Kentucky University and the League of Women Voters, was the second-to-last time the candidates will share the same stage before voters go to the polls.
Bevin, who has trailed in every public and private poll conducted during the race, appeared eager to go on the attack Sunday night, repeatedly accusing Conway of lying about positions Conway attributed to Bevin on health care and early childhood education.
On each of the issues raised by Conway, however, there is well-worn video evidence of Bevin taking those positions before backtracking or modifying them.
On Gov. Steve Beshear's decision to expand Medicaid enrollment to Kentuckians who are at 138 percent of the poverty level, Conway said he doesn't think having more than 400,000 Kentuckians on Medicaid is sustainable, but he argued that an improving economy would help move Kentuckians off of Medicaid.
Conway noted that Bevin said in February that he would reverse Beshear's executive order immediately, adding that for Kentuckians who just got health insurance, "to kick them off now would be callous."
"What I'm not going to do is what my opponent has said he would do on Day One of his administration, and that's kick nearly a half-million people off of their health insurance based on what we can or can't afford in six years," Conway said.
Bevin responded by calling Conway a liar, telling the audience that "what you're hearing already are some more of the very same lies you've been hearing all along.
"They're the same lies that have been pounding the airwaves of your television sets," Bevin said. "You're hearing things that I've supposedly said in which in fact I've never said. I've never said I'm going to kick people off of Medicaid."
When Conway responded that a " video camera caught you at the start of your campaign" saying Bevin would reverse Medicaid expansion immediately, Bevin disputed that he had been asked about that.
"You notice whenever you've heard this in one of his ads, you never hear the person actually ask the question," Bevin said. "And this is typical. You don't hear the question. You hear a snipped-out word or two to make it look like I'm responding to something other."
The question at issue was asked in February by the Associated Press's Adam Beam, who specifically asked Bevin about Beshear's executive order implementing Medicaid expansion. Bevin responded at the time: "Absolutely. No question. I would reverse that immediately."
Despite the confusion, Bevin went on to argue that the recent collapse of Kentucky Health Cooperative was proof that the new health care system was collapsing as a whole.
Conway disputed that assertion, saying, "just because the co-op has gone under doesn't mean the whole system has failed."
Bevin responded, "I'm not saying the whole system has failed."
On early childhood education, which Conway has made a centerpiece of his campaign, Bevin again accused Conway of lying as the Democrat reminded voters Bevin said during the Republican primary that early childhood education after third grade "serves no purpose."
Bevin has argued repeatedly that studies back him up on that, but his messaging on the issue took a hit six days ago when his running mate, Jenean Hampton, suggested early childhood education was not necessary before calling it a "nonissue" and saying it "wasn't even on our radar."
On Sunday night, Bevin emphasized that he supports early childhood education, but he said that the state needed to make sure it was spending taxpayer dollars wisely and that he and Conway disagreed on how early childhood education is administered.
After the debate, in a contentious gaggle with reporters, Bevin, who initially refused to answer questions from the Herald-Leader, was asked how he reconciles his stated support for early childhood education with his running mate's remarks.
"I will not speak for her, and nor does she speak for me," Bevin responded. "What I've said tonight is very clear, and my comments are absolutely crystal clear as it relates to my focus on early childhood education."
When a reporter asked moments later if Bevin had in fact said that "your running mate does not speak for your ticket," Bevin said, "I did not say that.
"I said she does not speak for me," Bevin said as his spokeswoman tried to intervene.
The two candidates also argued over who has the better approach to dealing with the state's pension crisis, with Bevin arguing he was the only candidate to offer a solution and proclaiming himself an expert because of his investment management of pension funds.
Conway responded by citing an article in The State Journal that showed Bevin's management of pension assets in South Carolina had produced questionable results at high fees.
And on medical marijuana, both candidates seemed to break with their parties, with Bevin saying he would support legalizing medicinal marijuana and Conway saying the medical community has not asked for legalization. Conway said he thinks that the state already has a crippling drug problem that could be exacerbated if marijuana were more available.