CAPE GIRARDEAU - Missouri's two major party candidates for governor debated for the first time here Monday with Democrat Bob Holden urging voters to stay the course and GOP candidate Jim Talent calling for a change at the top of state government.
"Do we continue to move forward making progress in Missouri, or do we radically change course?" asked Holden, whose party has held both the governor's mansion and the legislature since 1992. "Are we there yet? No, but we're heading in the right direction."
Talent rebutted Holden's contention saying things in state government are not quite so rosy.
"Holden says we're doing fine, but (state government) can't keep its promises to build highways, can't teach kids to read, and we're second in the nation in meth," he said.
The evening's most spirited exchange came on the subject of prescription drug coverage for the elderly. Talent started the clash when he characterized state government as sitting on its hands until an election year.
"The state's been rolling in dough, and now they're talking about prescription drugs . . . Where have they been?" he asked. "We shouldn't do it because it's an election year, we should do it because it's the right thing to do."
After cheering from Talent's supporters subsided, Holden delivered a stern rebuke.
"If it's the right thing to do, then why haven't you gotten it done in Washington?" he asked, referring the partisan stalemate in Congress over the issue.
The discussion, moderated by local TV anchor Dave Courvoisier and a student, stayed mostly on the issues the candidates have pitched: roads, health care and education. There was one notable exception.
Courvoisier asked about the candidates' views on partial-birth abortion. The issue, which highlights the candidates' differences has played a crucial role in state government in the last decade.
"I'll sign a bill banning partial-birth abortion willingly and eagerly," Talent said. He went on to say one side of the issue can't force its view down the other side's throat, but room for agreement exists.
"We must move forward on the parts of the issue where we already have consensus like limiting funding for abortions and stopping late-term procedures," he said.
Holden, appearing angry, said he, too, opposes partial-birth abortion, but it is a decision in which the government should not intervene.
"Families don't need government at that time," he said. "They need to meet with their clergy and their doctor and with the woman to decide.