One thing was clear after 60 minutes of the U.S. Senate debate between Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel that was broadcast live on NBC affiliates across the state Thursday night.
And that one thing is that Ohio voters couldn’t have a choice where the differences between the two candidates are pronounced and more profound.
They are polar opposites.
One, Brown, is a passionate advocate of the auto industry rescue that the Obama administration approved and that he voted for in the Senate, which he said has saved or created hundreds of thousands of Ohio jobs.
“We knew how important the auto industry is in Ohio, one out of eight jobs in Ohio is connected to it,’’ said Brown, in a debate that was moderated by Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director. “So we stepped up and did it. And my opponent says my vote for the auto industry – and presumably (former Republican) senator George Voinovich was un-American.”
Mandel stuck to his position that the auto industry rescue was wrong.
“I’m not a bailout senator,’’ said Mandel, a former state legislator who was elected state treasurer in 2010. “There is not a government bailout that I think I can support. I will not take your tax dollars to bail out corporations.”
Then there was the contentious issue of abortion, where Mandel is a hard-liner, saying he is against all abortions, except in the case of saving the life of the mother. He makes no exceptions for rape or incest.
“Sherrod Brown is an extremist on this issue,’’ Mandel said. “He actually supports spending your tax dollars on abortion.”
Turning to Brown, Mandel asked the first-term senator, “why do you support abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy?”
“I’ve never had anyone say that to me,’’ Brown responded, drawing a chuckle from some in the studio audience, which was evenly split between Brown and Mandel supporters.
“I will always trust Ohio women to make their health care decisions,’’ Brown said.
Todd asked Mandel if he would raise the eligibility age for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security as a way of making them viable in the future.
Mandel said he wouldn’t do so for people who are now on those programs, “or for baby boomers,” but said that he would consider it for people “who are my age or a little older.” Mandel is 35 years old.
Brown said he would not raise the age for eligibility and would work with Republicans in Congress to find other ways of making sure the funds stay solvent.
“I wouldn’t raise the age for Medicare; Social Security, I would not raise the retirement age,’’ Brown said. “Working people and people who work in diners can’t work until they are 70. We can talk about raising the cap.”
Thursday night’s debate was the third and final one between the two combatants for the Senate seat from Ohio; and while it was contentious at times, it seemed somewhat more civil than earlier encounters between the two – perhaps because the polling in the race is so close and both candidates were anxious not to make a mistake that would cost them votes.
Mandel, as he has throughout his campaign, hammered at his theme that “Washington is broken” and that he will go to Washington and not be beholden to his party leadership.
“Sherrod Brown has voted with his party 96 percent of the time,’’ Mandel said.
And he hit at Brown, a veteran of more than 30 years in politics, as an insider who has spent most of the campaign “attacking me.”
“For a guy who has been running for office since Richard Nixon was president, don’t you have anything good to say about your own record?,’’ Mandel asked.
“That makes a good sound bite, but it is not true,’’ said Brown, detailing many occasions when he has worked across the aisle on legislation.
When Mandel was in the legislature, Brown said, “he voted with his party leadership 96 percent of the time, except one of the times when he supported pay day lenders and then flew off to the Bahamas to raise money from them.”
This has been one of the most hotly contested – if not the most hotly contested – Senate race in the country, with control of the next U.S. Senate possibly hanging in the balance.
Unprecedented amounts of money have poured into Ohio from outside sources - $27 million so far in spending attacking Brown and promoting Mandel from GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic leaning Super PACs and other groups have spent about $11 million on behalf of Brown’s candidacy.
Hours before the 7 p.m. debate, large groups of Mandel and Brown supporters took up positions on opposite sides of Central Parkway, planting signs in the median, and occasionally, getting into chanting matches with each other as the cars zipped by on the parkway.
At the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union’s parking lot across from the CET studio, hundreds of Brown supporters – many of them union members – stood in line for hot dogs, burgers and chicken fresh off the grill.