The candidates for Kentucky's open Senate seat, one of the keystones in both parties' plans to hold the majority next year, clashed on "Fox News Sunday" over the nation's economy and over each other's personal integrity, with Republican Rand Paul accusing Democrat Jack Conway of flip-flopping on big issues.
In a televised debate, Paul described the November midterms as a referendum on President Obama's legislative agenda. Suggesting voters are inclined to vote against that agenda, he accused his Democratic opponent of backing away from the Obama proposals he once supported.
"What he needs to do is either defend his president or run away -- so far he's running away from President Obama and the agenda," Paul said.
Paul, arguably the first Tea Party-backed Senate candidate to win a Republican nomination, is trying to cast his opponent as "ambivalent" on economic issues critical to his state. So far, most polls show Paul holding a considerable lead over the state's attorney general - the latest Rasmussen poll put Paul up 11 points.
But Conway cast Paul as out-of-touch with state voters, particularly on the health care overhaul and entitlement benefits. His campaign slammed Paul after he suggested on "Fox News Sunday" that the retirement age may have to be raised for Social Security recipients.
Conway also said hundreds of thousands of Kentucky residents will have access to health care for the first time, warning that Paul's pledge to repeal the law would strip away premium assistance for low-income families and protections like a ban on denying coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions.
"I want to fix health care. He wants to repeal it," Conway said. "I think that's a stark difference."
Conway is standing by the health care law but offers mixed, and allegedly conflicting, reviews on other Obama priorities. Conway said he supported the tax cuts component of the stimulus package but that the "shovel-ready" infrastructure component has had mixed results. He said he would not have supported the bailouts -- which started under former President George W. Bush.
But Paul said Conway has changed his tune entirely, and repeatedly, on the issue of tax cuts.
After Congress adjourned without taking action on the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts, Conway now says the Bush tax cuts should be extended. But he told the Courier-Journal editorial board in April: "I would favor letting expire probably the majority, the majority of the Bush tax cuts."
Conway explained Sunday he was talking about "special interest provisions" that allow companies to ship U.S. jobs overseas. He stressed that he was originally for the Bush tax cuts in 2002.
Paul accused Conway of simply changing his position time after time. "You were for them before you were against them before you were for them again," Paul said.
He also accused Conway of being on "both sides" of the issue on the so-called "cap-and-trade" bill that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions. A local Kentucky news report last summer said Conway issued a statement in support of a House version of the cap-and-trade bill. Conway now says he's "against cap-and-trade" and "always have been."
"Kentuckians are not going to tolerate someone who's ambivalent on cap-and-trade," Paul said. "Cap-and-trade will be a disaster to our economy."
Conway says he's been consistent in standing up for Kentucky coal miners.
Conway stressed his work battling pharmaceutical companies and criticized Paul repeatedly for controversial comments he made about the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said he would be focused "like a laser" on jobs creation if elected.
Paul said his legislative work would be devoted to reducing spending and drawing down the national debt, pledging to introduce legislation to balance the budget.
The national debt "is threatening the very foundation of our economy," he said. "It's incredibly dangerous. It's incredibly foolhardy."