COLUMBUS - In the only televised debate in this year's U.S. Senate race for Ohio, Democrat Ted Celeste tried to turn his biggest weakness into a strength.
Mr. Celeste, trailing badly in fund-raising to first-term U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said Tuesday's election should be a referendum on the role of big money in politics.
“I believe this election offers us an opportunity to change the way we do politics,” Mr. Celeste said. “The corporate special interests have a stranglehold on this process. [Mr. DeWine] has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate special interests. I have not. I am the people's candidate.”
Mr. DeWine said when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, he pledged to be the “senator for all Ohio and I would be a strong advocate for this state.”
“And I have done that. I can go from one area of the state to the other to show the results,” he said.
If he is re-elected, Mr. DeWine, 53, said he likely will land an assignment to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the first time a U.S. senator from Ohio would have served on that powerful committee since 1945.
Mr. DeWine and Mr. Celeste squared off yesterday in a one-hour debate presented by the Ohio News Network. The sponsors were Grange Insurance, Worthington Industries, and Ohio State University.
As expected, Mr. Celeste, who has trailed Mr. DeWine by large margins in polls, was on the offensive on nearly every issue debated.
Mr. DeWine rarely responded to Mr. Celeste's charges, although at one point Mr. DeWine said his silence was caused by the one-minute limit on answers - not agreement with Mr. Celeste's allegations.
When asked by one of the journalists on the panel whether “money in politics has gotten out of hand,” Mr. DeWine said it has. He noted, however, that he has received contributions from 29,000 individuals in his re-election campaign, with the average amount under $100.
Mr. DeWine said he favors legislation to cap the amount of “soft money” - campaign contributions unregulated by federal law - that can be used in campaigns, increase the amount that individuals can give, and force more disclosure of who is bankrolling campaigns.
Mr. Celeste, 55, said he would vote for the bill pushed by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, to eliminate “soft money.” He bashed Mr. DeWine for not supporting the bill, even though he supported Mr. McCain for the GOP presidential nomination.
The candidates were asked to explain why their plan to provide a prescription drug benefit to seniors would be more effective than their opponent's.
“A prescription drug benefit run by an HMO or an insurance company will not work,” Mr. Celeste said. “I suggest we have it in Medicare and it will cover 1,689,000 people in Ohio.”
Mr. DeWine said Congress needs to “reform Medicare” to shift more of the federal program's focus toward preventing illnesses. He attacked Mr. Celeste's proposal as one that would force seniors to have limited choices for prescription drugs in certain regions.
The two candidates sparred over the use of vouchers so parents can use tax dollars to help send their children to private schools.
“I think vouchers jeopardize the underpinning of our public school system,” Mr. Celeste said. “There are plenty of opportunities for choice.”
Mr. DeWine said he supports vouchers.
“Ted, if you think people have choices, ask that to the poor families in Cleveland or Cincinnati who avail themselves of vouchers. They didn't have that choice before,” Mr. DeWine replied.
Asked about ways to reduce gun violence, Mr. Celeste said this summer he attended the Million Mom March, an organization which has endorsed his candidacy.
He said he supports licensing gun owners and registering guns, and called on the National Rifle Association to develop an education program on gun safety.
Mr. DeWine said he has fought for federal funding so local law enforcement agencies can conduct background checks on gun buyers and update their data bases.
He said he has supported a provision to close a “loophole” that would make people who purchase at gun shows undergo background checks.
Asked about reports that there have been more flight delays at U.S. airports in the first seven months of this year than in all of 1999, Mr. DeWine said the federal government should devote more resources to “infrastructure.”
“The solution, quite bluntly, is we have to put more money into it. You don't hear that from a conservative Republican all the time,” he said.
Mr. Celeste agreed that the federal government needs to improve technology used in the air traffic control system, but he said more controllers are needed and weather has been a factor in this year's delays.