In their first and only public debate in Central Kentucky's tight race for the 6th Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and Republican challenger Andy Barr clashed on controversial issues ranging from abortion to the federal auto bailout.
The two men, appearing Monday night on Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Tonight with host Bill Goodman, are in a rematch from a 2010 battle that Chandler won by only 648 votes.
They were joined by independent Randolph Vance, a Lexington convenience store employee who is running a limited campaign.
Throughout the hourlong debate, Chandler said Barr's campaign has been untruthful in all its ads and Barr tried to tie Chandler to President Barack Obama.
The candidates appeared eager to answer questions. The only exception was when Barr did not specifically answer at least twice about whether there should be exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest or when a mother's life is in danger.
Barr, a Lexington attorney, said he would always vote for the anti-abortion position and that votes in Congress he anticipates on abortion would deal with subjects like partial-birth abortion and federal funding for the medical procedure. He said he was not aware of any legislation dealing with exceptions for abortion.
After the debate, Barr declined to elaborate on the abortion question.
"The bottom line is that the people of this district and country are focused on the economy. That's the central issue," he said.
Barr told reporters he did not know whether right-to-life groups, which have endorsed him, asked him about exceptions for abortion. If they did, he said, he would be willing to release his answers.
Chandler called abortion a tragedy and said efforts should be made to make adoption easier. But, he said, it is important to let a woman decide with her doctor what should happen to her body.
He said after the debate that he never heard Barr answer the abortion question. "There was an extraordinary effort to get him to answer that, which failed," he said.
During the televised debate, Barr criticized Chandler's vote for the $85 billion rescue plan for automakers Chrysler Corp. and General Motors.
Barr said the bailout was an example of government's "over-reaching," but Chandler said it has saved jobs in Kentucky, especially supplier plants to the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in Georgetown.
Barr also chided Chandler for his support of the controversial, Obama-backed "cap-and-trade" bill that was designed to curb emissions from coal-fired plants. The measure died in the U.S. Senate.
Barr said Chandler's vote hurt the coal industry and would have raised electricity rates. But Chandler noted that the bill never became law.
On the federal health-care reform bill known as the Affordable Care Act, commonly dubbed "Obamacare," Chandler said it would be wrong to repeal provisions in it such as disallowing insurance companies to drop clients with certain pre-existing conditions.
Barr said the health care reform is "a job killer" in calling for its repeal.
The debate got started in disagreement when the candidates were asked to identify the most serious issue in the race.
Barr, who said he is "running for a cause, not a career," said he wants to improve America's economy and make sure the next generation of Americans have more opportunities than the current generation.
Chandler said the most important issue is jobs and called for more moderates like him in Congress. "We don't need more ideologues," he said. Later in the show, Chandler called Barr "a tea party extremist."
Chandler said Americans are doing better as the national economy is improving, but Barr disagreed.
On whether there should be term limits for members of Congress, Barr said he favors six two-year terms for members of Congress; Chandler said the limits are not good for small states like Kentucky because they block power gained by seniority.
Chandler, who has been in Congress since February 2004, said he wondered whether Barr thinks U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, both of whom are Kentucky Republicans who have had lengthy tenures in Congress, should not be allowed to seek office again.
During the debate, Chandler displayed campaign mailers targeted against him that he said were false. But Barr said they were distributed by the Kentucky Republican party. Barr has said he consulted with the GOP on the fliers.
Voters in the 19-county 6th Congressional District will decide the winner at the polls next Tuesday.