Jack Conway and Rand Paul gave Kentucky voters a show Monday night as they squared off, at times launching personal attacks, in a U.S. Senate contest that's still a toss-up, just three weeks away from Election Day.
Conway, the state's 41-year-old Democratic attorney general, was the picture of a polished young politician who smartly played it down the middle on the issues in the state that went for John McCain over Barack Obama by a 16-point margin in 2008. Conway strategically bucked his party on the Bush tax cuts and and the war in Afghanistan, but hewed closely to Democratic positions on health care, education, and job growth, and warned the audience that Rand Paul "just doesn't get Kentucky."
While Conway was the square-jawed pol from central casting, Paul was the precocious interloper, the ophthalmologist who moved to Bowling Green 16 years ago and has never held office. During the hour, the Republican confidently espoused his own brand of strict, small-government conservatism, calling for lower taxes and less federal government, while careening away from politically safe positions on earmarks and Social Security. Between answers, Paul frequently mocked Conway for being unclear on where he stands on issues and more than once told the attorney general to "stand up and believe in something."
The evening began with Conway painting Paul as extreme based on his earlier statements in which he questioned the constitutionality of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, and mine-safety protections. "Rand Paul would undo all that we have fought for since the Great Depression," Conway said.
But Paul fought back. "When people say, 'Gosh, that's extreme,' what's extreme is what's going on in Washington," he said.
The two tackled the issues of taxes and spending early in the debate. Both men said they would extend all of the Bush tax cuts, although Paul would do so permanently, while Conway called for only a temporary extension, which Paul called a change of position. "First he was against them before he was for them. I have no idea where he stands," Paul said.
When each was asked how he would balance the federal budget, Paul said he would first return money to the Treasury from TARP and the stimulus package and look at cutting all federal spending, even defense and entitlement programs. "Don't give me three programs -- give me a thousand," Paul said.
Conway's proposed cuts were more modest and familiar: Allowing Medicare to purchase medications in bulk, cutting Medicare fraud, instituting "pay as you go" budget rules (which already exist but are rarely observed in Congress), and following the recommendations of the current bi-partisan debt commission.
The first fireworks of the night came when Paul used a question about spending to hammer Conway on Kentucky's rampant problems with illegal prescription abuse, a problem Paul had dismissed as inconsequential earlier in the campaign.
"(Conway) has been traveling to California and raking in so much campaign cash I don't think he's had time to do his job," Paul said, pointing out that Conway is the state's highest-ranking law enforcement officer. "Meth labs have doubled under his watch. I'm a physician in Bowling Green and all of the sudden I'm responsible for the drug problem? Look in the mirror."
The two batted back and forth throughout the hour, with Conway repeatedly going after Paul's suggestion earlier in the campaign that some Medicare beneficiaries might pay a $2,000 deductible before their benefits begin to close the expected gap in funding for the program.
Paul defended the need to discuss the troubled future of entitlement programs.
"In the future, we will have to do things, not on current recipients, but there will have to be changes made," he said. "It's going bankrupt. We cannot stick our head in the sand and do the same old same old."
Ultimately, Paul suggested that some people, "maybe people who own a race horse or people who have millions of dollars" may have to pay more of the cost for Medicare, referencing the fact that Conway owns a race horse.
"Step up and be a man. Take a chance, Say you're for something," Paul said to Conway.
Conway fired back at Paul. "I'm sick and tired of you putting forward something so callous and saying it's courageous. I would never balance the budget on the backs of seniors."
Paul went after Conway again over the question of earmarks, when a local reporter asked the two if they would commit to supporting projects that benefit northern Kentucky in Washington.
Paul took the road far less traveled in American politics and said that he would advocate for necessary infrastructure in the state, but wouldn't make any promises.
"I will not simply promise the here's the money, it's free, there are no conditions. That's our problem," he said. "Do we want someone who will simply pander? There are consequences to having a $2-trillion debt."
Conway, on the other hand, did make promises. "I'll stand up for northern Kentucky," Conway said, adding that he's against earmark abuse, but would want responsible, transparent earmarks otherwise.
Paul pounced. "You may need an interpreter -- when someone is talking in circles it's hard to understand them. You're for earmarks, right?"
Paul said he would have demanded a declaration of war before sending troops to Afghanistan, and he said he would have voted against going to war in Iraq. Conway segued to Pakistan and Iran before Paul took him to task again.
"Let me interpret for you. He was for the Iraq war before he was against it," Paul said to the audience. "At least stand up and take a stand. Believe in something. If you were for it, stand up and say you were for it."
From the wars, the two moved on to a final round of the proper role of the federal government, which Paul said should be limited. He said the bigger the federal government, "the more distant it is from the people and the more likely it is to have waste and abuse."
Conway said Paul's answer showed how disconnected he is. "We have very different views about what it means to put Kentucky first," Conway said.