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Carnahan controls much of the debate

October 16, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

KANSAS CITY, Mo., - Gov. Mel Carnahan, through his more aggressive style, controlled much of the content of Sunday night's debate between Missouri's major U.S. Senate candidates.

He forced his opponent, Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., to defend himself on tax cuts, soft money, and even his choice not to attack his foe. For his part, Ashcroft spent his time promoting his education plan and record of accomplishment in the Senate.

The debate, broadcast live on public TV and held before about 150 people in this city's Gem Theater, was the candidates' second match-up. Reflecting the importance of the race, journalists from the country's top newspapers were on hand, including reporters from the Washington Post and The New York Times.

"I felt good about (the debate). I am always trying to point out the differences in these debates," Carnahan said in an interview afterward. "My job in debates is to make us look different. Ashcroft's strategy is to make us look alike."

Carnahan took the first opportunity -- a response to a question from the audience about negativity in the campaign -- to attack Ashcroft's $4 trillion tax cut proposed in 1998.

"I'd like to know how Sen. Ashcroft would propose to do his $4 trillion tax cut without spending any social security funding and have, after that, room to do anything for education and prescription drugs?" Carnahan asked his opponent.

Retorted Ashcroft: "That $4 trillion tax cut is not current, not my plan for a second term in the U.S. Senate."

Ashcroft offered the cut when he was seeking the GOP's presidential nomination in 1998. He dropped out after Carnahan jumped into the Senate ring, saying it would be too hard to handle both campaigns.

At the first debate in St. Louis on Friday, Carnahan was also the more aggressive candidate.

Ashcroft's spokesman, when asked if the senator was hoping to turn the tide Sunday, said Carnahan's style indicated he was "more bitter" than the Republican.

Ashcroft replied to the negativity question by outlining his more sedate debating style.

"I'll respect my opponent, won't internalize as in personal attacks," Ashcroft said. "I may attack his positions. We need to keep the discussion civilized to get people to vote."

But Ashcroft offered very few attacks -- and even then mild ones -- on Carnahan's issues. In one case, he outlined a difference between the pair on U.S. Supreme Court appointments, important because the Senate confirms presidential appointments to the bench.

In response to an audience question on abortion and Court appointments, Carnahan called the Constitution "a living document."

To Ashcroft, that comment revealed Carnahan's support of judicial activism, a practice conservatives condemn as judges improperly making laws.

"This is a clear difference between us," Ashcroft said. "I don't want judges who are legislators."

Both candidates said a Court nominee's views on abortion would not be a "litmus test" for their support. Ashcroft is staunchly anti-abortion and Carnahan has fought for abortion-rights.

The governor lashed out at Ashcroft not agreeing to ban soft money in the campaign.

"Hillary and Lazio got it done in New York," Carnahan said, referring to that state's Senate race between first lady Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y.

Ashcroft said it would have been impossible for him to stop groups who wanted to run ads in his favor. He also said the governor's campaign had benefited from more soft money than his had.

The debate was probably the candidates's last, as an impasse over the date of the third match-up has led to its cancellation.