LOUISVILLE — For the first time during a campaign fought mostly over airwaves, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford stared each other down Wednesday and answered each others' criticisms.
Lunsford, in fact, used his closing remarks during a two-hour forum at the Kentucky Farm Bureau to talk directly to McConnell rather than the audience. He leveled his strongest criticism of McConnell to date.
”The last 24 years, you've had an opportunity to do some great things for this state and this country. And in my opinion, you've failed,“ Lunsford said. ”I think you have worked with a president for the last eight years closer than anyone. I think he's failed. In my judgment, he's the worst president in my lifetime.“
McConnell smiled defiantly as he stared back at Lunsford.
During his remarks, McConnell alternated between touting his influence as Senate Republican leader and systematically, but politely, dismissing Lunsford.
”My opponent is a good guy. I've known him for years. But the reality is he's only a few years younger than I am,“ McConnell said. ”And his chances of being in a position I'm in — not only for Kentucky agriculture, but Kentucky in general — is slim, to say the least.“
The forum marked the first time the two men, who are widely expected to run the most expensive ad-driven political campaign in state history, have engaged each other directly. Even at the Fancy Farm picnic in Western Kentucky earlier this month, McConnell didn't mention Lunsford and the two candidates gave stock speeches.
But both McConnell and Lunsford expressed a willingness to debate, especially after Lunsford told the Farm Bureau he'd like weekly forums leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
”I think we are going to have some debates. I enjoy them,“ McConnell told reporters, adding that he will ”give“ Lunsford more debates than Democratic Sen. Walter ”Dee“ Huddleston agreed to in 1984 when McConnell first won the Senate seat.
McConnell, however, wouldn't commit to a number.
During the forum, the candidates agreed on several broad policy issues, such as eliminating the capital gains tax. But they frequently traded shots over each other's political backers.
Lunsford repeated his claim that McConnell is ”bought and paid for“ by special interests such as drug companies and the oil industry, while McConnell described Lunsford as a patsy of labor unions.
”He's not going to be for any of these trade agreements that will allow you to sell your products abroad, because the AFL-CIO won't let him,“ McConnell told the Farm Bureau. ”He bought into the agenda right down the line.“
Lunsford used his childhood experience working on his father's tobacco farm to try to connect with the audience. At one point he mentioned how, when he was in high school, he kept a tobacco spear and a knife in the trunk of his car.
”I always got the feeling with Sen. McConnell's background that he had a briefcase in the back of his car,“ Lunsford said
McConnell let no point pass unchallenged.
”It's interesting that my opponent was raised on a farm, but other than being interesting, it's totally irrelevant to the issue at hand today,“ McConnell said as he brought his remarks back to his central campaign theme of touting the value of his leadership position.
That, he said, will be lost ”if you were to trade in the Republican leader in the Senate for a freshman member of the other party. He won't be there long enough to have any impact no matter how sharp he thinks he is.“