With the two candidates signaling from the outset that they intended to stick to material used time and again on the stump and in television commercials, the debate between U.S. Senate hopefuls Lee Fisher and Rob Portman Monday night became a tug-of-war over …Woody Hayes?
Mr. Fisher, a Democrat and Ohio's lieutenant governor, and Mr. Portman, a Republican former congressman and President George W. Bush's budget director and trade representative, engaged each other on the economy, trade, health care, taxes, Social Security, energy, and the Supreme Court during their one-hour debate at Bowsher High School in Toledo.
It was the first of three statewide debates.
Mr. Portman needled his opponent for Ohio's poor economy while Mr. Fisher and his boss, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, have presided over the state. Mr. Fisher hammered on Mr. Portman's support of trade agreements and tax breaks for corporations that send jobs from Ohio to other countries.
But when defending the Strickland administration's record on the economy, Mr. Fisher compared his leadership and that of Governor Strickland to legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. And that's where the two men vying for Republican Sen. George Voinovich's seat veered - if only for a moment - from their campaign talking points.
"We're going down that field just like Woody Hayes did: three yards and a cloud of dust," Mr. Fisher said.
Waiting for Mr. Fisher to finish, Mr. Portman responded: "I think it's an insult to Woody Hayes' incredible record at Ohio State to somehow compare him to what's happened in Ohio the last four years."
Following the debate, Mr. Fisher said his father actually played under Coach Hayes at New Philadelphia High School.
"I don't think maybe he watches enough football," Mr. Fisher said of Mr. Portman. "The Woody Hayes that I've read about and my father's told me about was one of these people who said you get on the field and you do what you can do, whatever the circumstances are."
The U.S. Senate candidates receive instructions from debate moderator Diane Larson of WTVG, Channel 13, left. The debate at Bowsher High School was not open to the public.
While Mr. Portman, using his oft-cited statistic of 400,000 Ohio jobs lost under Governor Strickland and Mr. Fisher, repeatedly bashed his opponent for the poor economy, Mr. Fisher tried to make the point that he and the governor had made moves to better position Ohio for the future.
He spoke of the state's efforts to keep Cooper Tire in Findlay, Schindler Elevator in suburban Toledo, and to help employees at Norwalk Furniture purchase the closed factory and reopen under a different name.
"Woody wouldn't have been these guys holding their hot dogs in the stands saying I could do better," Mr. Fisher said after the debate. "Woody would've admired anybody, Democrat or Republican, who was out on the field trying to get us out of this economic [slump]."
Last week, The Blade published a three-day series, Shut Down and Shipped Out, that showed northwest Ohio had suffered over 30 factory closings in the last two years, totaling more than 2,200 jobs lost. In 16 of those instances, the factory closing resulted in work being shipped to other states, including four plants to Indiana.
"We're falling behind," Mr. Portman said during the debate. "These guys have not done the job, and now he wants to take that record to Washington."
Shifting to the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Portman criticized President Obama and Mr. Fisher for supporting a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan in 2011, saying the deadline "gives comfort to our enemies. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, will wait us out."
Mr. Fisher said he supported an arbitrary deadline and said the War on Terror should be fought more with special operations forces and drone aircraft.
Mr. Fisher accused Mr. Portman of supporting the privatization of Social Security - a failed goal of President George W. Bush's second term. Mr. Portman denied the claim, responding: "Another personal attack by my opponent. That's just not accurate. I do not support privatizing Social Security."
Following the debate, Mr. Fisher said: "It sounded to me like he was backing off on his position to privatize Social Security. There is no way he can deny he was for it."
On the Supreme Court, Mr. Fisher said he would've voted to confirm Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor - nominated by President Obama - but said he didn't know if he would've voted against Bush nominees Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Mr. Portman said he would've voted against Justice Kagan.
Mr. Fisher said as a senator he would look at President Obama's health care legislation to "see what works and what doesn't" and criticized Mr. Portman for proposing to repeal the entire law.
Mr. Fisher, who is trailing in polling for this race as well as in fund-raising efforts, also said after the debate that he will make up the double-digit deficit he faces against Mr. Portman.
"We have a far more powerful and effective message," Mr. Fisher said. "With our resources, not only financial but grassroots, you will see the gap continue to close, and you will see us win on Election Day. It will not be by a lot. It will be close, but those are the only elections I know how to run."
Mr. Portman skipped the post-debate press conference, but campaign manager Bob Paduchik jumped in front of reporters to say: "clearly Rob Portman won tonight's debate."
The Ohio Newspaper Organization, of which The Blade is a member, sponsored the debate. OHNO is a cooperative of the state's eight largest daily papers, also including the Dayton Daily News, (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch, Akron Beacon Journal, Canton Repository, and (Youngstown) Vindicator. The debate was broadcast live by WTVG, Channel 13, and C-SPAN, and was moderated by Channel 13's Diane Larson. The public was not permitted to attend.
The other two statewide debates will be Friday in Cleveland and Oct. 12 in Columbus.
Following the debate, Lucas County Republican party chairman Jon Stainbrook said 62 Portman supporters were outside the school waving signs and banners, compared with 12 Fisher supporters.
Below is the Web chat during and after Monday's debate at Bowsher High School in Toledo.
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