ERLANGER — Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell deflected charges by Democrat Bruce Lunsford about his role in an unpopular and largely ineffective Congress and instead put Lunsford on his heels with questions about foreign affairs.
The two U.S. Senate candidates spent an hour on Saturday morning tossing each other questions at a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate put on by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
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Lunsford sidestepped McConnell's questions about the United States' approach to the continuing conflict between Russia and Georgia, as well as how to contain the remaining "rogue states" with nuclear ambitions, Iran and North Korea. McConnell then moved to brand Lunsford as unprepared. "I think it's pretty obvious that Bruce doesn't even have an average newspaper knowledge of this issue," he said after Lunsford answered each question by talking about how the United States had exhausted its resources in Iraq.
McConnell then answered his own question about how the country should intercede in the Russia-Georgia conflict. He said the United States should offer financial aid to Georgia, stall Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization and bring Georgia into NATO.
"Because the best way to deal with the Russians, if they want to have an empire again, is to draw a line so it's very, very clear that you don't go across it," he said.
Lunsford told reporters later that he had prepared on the international questions but that he sought to talk about the "process that has got everybody frustrated."
"He wants to talk about two or three trees. I want to talk about the forest being burned down," Lunsford said. "You can't avoid the fact that we've got an economic crisis, we've got a health care crisis, we've got a debt crisis, we've got an energy crisis. We don't have the options we've had in the past because as a country, we're not militarily strong and we're not economically strong."
Several times, Lunsford argued that the "process" in Washington was the "bigger question" — a signal that after months of trying different lines of attack against McConnell, Lunsford might finally have settled on a central theme.
"When you talk about a do-nothing Congress, and you consider yourself the guardian of gridlock, how does that not work that you're not part of the do-nothing Congress?" Lunsford asked.
"What's wrong with this Congress? I'll tell you: blind partisanship," said McConnell, the Senate GOP leader.
McConnell said he had hoped Democrats and Republicans would have crafted compromise on complicated issues, such as Social Security reform, similar to the way Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress in the 1990s balanced the budget and retooled the welfare system. He blamed the Democrats for the failure to do so in what he called a "missed-opportunity Congress."
Lunsford referred to McConnell as a pork-aholic when it comes to federally funded projects. He pointed out that Republican presidential candidate John McCain has pledged to veto earmarked funding for specific projects.
"This is about whether any Congress is going to hand over to any president, regardless of party, 100 percent of the discretion about how the federal tax money is to be spent," McConnell said. "One of my advantages is to help Kentucky. The $321 million for Kentucky universities, I'm assuming maybe Bruce would rather that be spent in Ohio or West Virginia."
Lunsford opened the debate with a sharp question by referring to a news release from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that put McConnell on its list of 20 "most corrupt" members of Congress.
The group alleges that those lawmakers — 14 Republicans and six Democrats — have used their offices for personal benefit.
"It's an absolute outrage. He ought to be ashamed of himself," McConnell said, adding that news organizations have reported that the group, CREW, has been funded by liberal groups.
Later, McConnell described Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, as campaigning solely on his own checkbook. "Bruce, I can tell you that Gulfstreams and limousines won't get you to Frankfort or to Washington," he said, also referring to Lunsford's two previous failed runs for governor.
At another point, Lunsford asked McCon nell why "your office attempted to discredit" Graeme Frost, a child from Maryland who spoke last fall on behalf of the Democrats' plan to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
"What he said just didn't happen," McConnell responded.
In fact, however, McConnell's communications director, Don Stewart, did e-mail reporters quoting bloggers who claimed the Frosts were taking advantage of the SCHIP program. Stewart later issued a retraction. When reminded about that later Saturday, McConnell responded, "You'll have to ask Stew about that."
Even though the debate format was inspired by the historic rhetorical clashes between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, it was former Republican President Ronald Reagan who was quoted most often.
Lunsford opened the debate by asking whether Kentuckians "are better off now than you were six years ago" — an echo of Reagan's closing line in his famous 1980 debate against Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
And later, McConnell deflected Lunsford's charge that the senator had advocated creating tolls to pay for a new bridge across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky by paraphrasing Reagan's other famous line from that debate: "There he goes again."
McConnell claimed he had never called for tolls. McConnell's position has been that Northern Kentucky might have to get creative to fund construction of a bridge that has a several hundred-million-dollar price tag.