LOUISVILLE — In the first of at least five debates in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul clashed Sunday on a national television show over issues that have defined their campaigns in recent weeks.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday with host Chris Wallace, Conway and Paul argued about how best to fix the economy, shore up federal entitlement programs and fight drug abuse, among other things.
Paul accused Conway of being a surrogate for President Barack Obama's agenda, citing Conway's support for a federal health care overhaul law and the federal stimulus bill.
"I think this election really is about the president's agenda," Paul said.
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Conway, the state's attorney general, tried to distance himself from the president, who is unpopular in many parts of the state, by staking out positions contrary to Obama on three key issues.
Conway said he would vote to extend tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush, would have opposed a federal bank bailout because it lacked accountability and would have voted against a "cap-and-trade" bill to control carbon emissions because it would have increased electricity rates and hurt the coal mining industry.
Paul accused Conway of flip-flopping on those issues, citing comments made by Conway during the primary election in which he made more nuanced statements about the bank bailout, extending tax cuts and cap-and-trade.
Meanwhile, Conway continued to highlight past statements by Paul that show "he's out of touch with the mainstream values of Kentucky."
"There's a real clear choice between someone who has taken on the drug issue and someone who says drugs aren't a pressing issue, someone who stands up to criminals and someone who says non-violent behavior shouldn't be a crime, someone who supports the rights of the disabled and someone who has said that he is against the American Disabilities Act, between someone who is going to stand up and protect Medicare and someone who says Medicare needs a $2,000 deductible," Conway said.
Paul has said his comments on several of those issues have been misquoted or taken out of context.
Moderator Wallace told Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first bid for public office, that he says little about Conway on the campaign trail and offered him the opportunity to do so.
"We're waiting for him to catch up a little bit in the polls and then we may refer to him more," Paul said, adding that Conway should either defend or run away from Obama.
With both candidates dressed in dark suits and red ties and seated side-by-side at the Fox affiliate's studio in Louisville, Wallace pressed them to offer one benefit to reduce in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Conway said he favors allowing bulk purchasing of drugs for Medicare recipients.
Paul suggested that the retirement age for Social Security will have to be raised for younger workers. "You're going to have to have eligibility changes for younger people," he said.
When discussing the federal stimulus plan, Wallace reminded the candidates that Kentucky has received $3 billion from the fund.
Paul said the state has lost 17,000 jobs despite the stimulus and noted that future generations will have to repay the money borrowed to fund the program.
"Jack acts like the money is for free, just go and get it from Santa Claus in Washington," Paul said.
Such debt is "threatening the very foundations of our economy," Paul said.
Conway said he is proposing a tax credit on businesses to create jobs and will try to get small banks to lend more money for economic development.
The two candidates also traded barbs on their concern for illegal drugs.
Conway noted that Paul has said drugs are "not a pressing issue," but Paul said, as a physician and father, he is concerned about drugs.
He said the number of methamphetamine labs in Kentucky has doubled since Conway took office as the state's chief law-enforcement official.
Conway countered by saying his office is finding more drug labs because meth has become easier to produce in so-called "shake and bake labs."
On whether he would vote for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville as the Senate's GOP leader, Paul said he plans to vote for McConnell for the leadership position. He hedged a bit by adding that he presumes McConnell will be the choice of the Senate GOP caucus, "and I will vote for whoever comes out of the caucus meeting."
Before Sunday's debate started, the candidates were greeted by a few of their supporters in front of WDRB-TV in downtown Louisville. Both camps had put up some of their campaign signs.
Both candidates left the station without talking to reporters.
The next debate for Conway and Paul is scheduled for Oct. 11 in Covington for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Other debates are scheduled Oct. 14, Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce; Oct. 17, University of Louisville/WHAS-TV on the University of Louisville Belknap Campus; and Oct. 25, Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington.