Kennedy, Landrieu take their final shots in debate
By Ed Anderson
Treasurer John Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sparred in their last debate Wednesday night with each of the U.S. Senate hopefuls defending their negative commercials that have dominated airwaves for months.
The two also jabbed at each other repeatedly during the forum, which was broadcast from WWL-TV in New Orleans and was carried live on six television stations in the state's major markets and nationally on C-SPAN2.
In response to the first question of the 60-minute debate, Kennedy said his campaign started out with positive commercials in August and blamed Landrieu for going negative first. "I had to respond," Kennedy said. "I will never say Mary Landrieu is a bad person."
He said he does not have control over ads that he did not approve or pay for and were aired by an independent party. National Republican organizations have been airing ads on Kennedy's behalf. "But I will talk about Mary's record," he said.
Landrieu shot back that she had to defend herself against the negative Kennedy ads, pointing out that Kennedy has changed his party and positions on several key issues.
"I do not believe he is unethical," she said. "I believe he has mismanaged his office," losing $37 million.
Landrieu lashed out at Kennedy for taking campaign donations from individuals who appeared before the State Bond Commission, the agency Kennedy heads as treasurer.
The sniping continued throughout the forum, with the candidates sometimes ignoring questions to respond to a previous barb or launch a new attack.
Several times moderator and Channel 4 news anchor Dennis Woltering had to ask a question again in an effort to get the candidate back on track. He also sometimes had to cut them off for going over their allotted time.
Landrieu is seeking a third term in the Senate. Kennedy, a Democrat-turned-Republican, is making his second run for the Senate. He ran in 2004 as a Democrat and finished third.
The debate was the last time the two are expected to share a podium before the Nov. 4 election.
--- 16 days, 4 debates ---
The forum was also the fourth time Kennedy and Landrieu have debated the issues in 16 days. The two met for the first time Oct. 6 in a forum at the Press Cub of Baton Rouge, then Oct. 12 in a statewide televised debate on public broadcasting affiliates from the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The third debate, on Oct. 15, was held on the campus of the University of New Orleans carried by WDSU-TV in the New Orleans area and nationally by C-SPAN.
The two voiced slightly different stances on the issue of abortion, with Landrieu saying she believes it is "morally wrong. I have done everything I can to minimize it." She said she has broken with her party to vote against late-term abortion bills and requiring parental consent for a young woman to get an abortion.
But she said a woman should not be fined or jailed if she has an abortion.
Kennedy, who almost 20 years ago helped draft a veto message for a strict anti-abortion bill, spiked by then-Gov. Buddy Roemer, said he has changed his views on abortion and thinks it should be permitted only if the life of the mother is at risk.
"I saw a lot of things differently when I was young," Kennedy said. "When I became a father, that has changed my life."
Kennedy also said he opposes withdrawal of American forces from Iraq until military leaders say it is safe.
He said President Bush's "troop surge is working. . . . There was a time when we might have gotten out of Iraq without surrender, but they would have had a civil war" and the continued American presence is needed. "The security of our people is at stake and the war against terrorism is at stake," he said. "Mary Landrieu voted against the surge; she voted to leave Iraq."
Landrieu said Kennedy favored withdrawal four years ago when he was a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. "I am a strong supporter of our troops," Landrieu said. "In some places in Washington, they call me 'Military Mary.' I did not think the surge would work."
Landrieu was critical of the Bush administration spending "$300 million a day, $10 billion a month" on the war. "We have to get that money home," she said.
Landrieu stressed in her campaign that she has developed a reputation as a centrist, putting together coalitions and working with Democrats and Republicans to get things done.
Landrieu said she is proud of the money she has gotten for the state, ranging from dollars for colleges and universities to recovery money for victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav. "Directing money from Washington to home is part of my job," she said.
"The earmark process is broken," Kennedy said of the money Landrieu and others have inserted into bills for special projects.
Kennedy said Landrieu has voted for special spending program such as "fruit-fly research and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame."
--- Tempo changes ---
In a lightning round of short questions and answers, the two candidates were asked if they would authorize military force to go after al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, believed to be operating in Pakistan.
Landrieu said she would prefer to use diplomacy and intelligence first to find out where the terrorist leader is. She said she would use troops as a last measure, "if I thought that America was truly challenged, I would, absolutely support" the use of troops.
Kennedy said he "clearly would not tell Pakistan first; if I thought it was . . . a grave threat," the use of force should be an option.
In a melancholy moment near the end of the debate, each candidate was asked to give an example of personal setbacks in their lives and how they handled them.
Kennedy said that he and his wife Becky "lost a baby. . . . It hurt our marriage but we kept going. I learned about how precious life is; I don't care if it is 82 seconds old or 82 minutes old."
Landrieu told Kennedy she was unaware of the loss and offered her condolences. She said her greatest disappointment was that she wanted to be a "full-time Christian minister, but it didn't work out."
"It happened when I was a young girl, and it didn't work out," she said. Instead, she said she learned to keep focused on trying to help others through public service.
Landrieu did not say what kind of ministry she wanted to pursue.