By MELINDA DESLATTE
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger John Kennedy defended Wednesday their use of negative campaign ads in the Senate race and then traded more barbs in the final debate before the Nov. 4 election.
At times talking loudly over each other in an unusual debate format, the two major candidates in the race both said they regretted the tone of the campaigns, which has largely focused on TV attack ads.
But Kennedy and Landrieu also continued to accuse each other of pay-for-play politics, incompetence and lies about their records and positions.
"It's necessary in this business when you're trying to articulate your ideas and your policies to respond to accusations that aren't true," said Kennedy, the state treasurer. "I have never, you will never hear me say that Mary Landrieu is a bad person. I just disagree with her."
However, pro-Kennedy ads run by national Republican groups have called Landrieu corrupt and unethical. Kennedy said he had no part in those third-party attack ads and then he cited a watchdog group's report that tagged Landrieu as corrupt.
Landrieu said she believed it was important to describe Kennedy's record during the campaign, his party switch and his position changes. Kennedy ran four years ago for the Senate as a populist Democrat before changing parties last year and running now as a conservative.
"'Extreme Makeover' may be a fun program to watch on television, but it is not fun to watch in a Senate race which has serious consequences," Landrieu said. "He is not who he claims to be."
When pressed to say whether Kennedy was unethical, as some pro-Landrieu ads have claimed, the Democratic incumbent replied, "I do not believe that he is unethical, but I do believe that he has mismanaged his office."
The candidates sat side by side at two desks in the debate, held at WWL-TV in New Orleans and broadcast live statewide. The debate format allowed Kennedy and Landrieu at times to jump in to answer questions, so they repeatedly interrupted each other and were cut off in answers by the TV reporters questioning them.
"Can I please respond to this?" Landrieu said, exasperated at one point, as Kennedy accused Landrieu of being against domestic oil drilling. Landrieu denied the claim.
Both Landrieu and Kennedy accused each other of hypocrisy, record distortions, position flip-flops and misrepresentations of facts.
Landrieu described herself as a moderate, independent senator who's brought home billions of dollars in aid for the state while Kennedy called her a liberal who supports higher taxes and wasteful spending.
Kennedy framed himself as a conservative who wants to end deficit-spending and clean up a broken political system in Congress, while Landrieu called him a political opportunist who opposed relief for the hurricane-damaged farming industry and other aid for Louisiana.
When questioned about criticism for a $2 million earmark that benefited a Texas company that gave her campaign contributions, Landrieu said she has been unfairly attacked for helping fund a successful literacy program run by Voyager Expanded Learning for Washington, D.C., kindergartners and first-graders.
Voyager's executives and associates gave her $30,000 in campaign contributions, but Landrieu said the two weren't tied. She said when she headed a committee that worked on the budget for the District of Columbia, local officials sought money for the literacy program and she requested the funding months before the fundraiser and campaign contributions.
"The program worked to encourage children to read, and their scores went up. For that, I have been skewered," Landrieu said. "There was a never a connection between contributions and that program."
Then she lobbed her own accusation, saying Kennedy "has made a career of making pay-for-play politics real and alive and well in Louisiana" and referenced his receipt of hundreds of thousands and dollars in campaign contributions from people who appear before the Bond Commission, which Kennedy chairs and which oversees bond sales for state and local projects.
On other issues:
The two diverged on the issue of abortion. Landrieu, a Catholic, said she believes abortion is morally wrong and has supported a ban on late-term abortions, but she added, "I do not believe that jail terms and fines are appropriate for women who would choose to terminate a pregnancy."
Kennedy, who once campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights, said now he believes abortion should be legal only to save the life of the mother. "I saw a lot of things differently when I was younger, but then a funny thing happened, I became a father," he said, talking of his adopted son.
Kennedy defended his change in position on setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Kennedy supported a timetable in 2004 and opposes it now. The Republican treasurer said he backed setting a specific time for leaving before the country faced a civil war.