Republican Sen. Pat Roberts used the first debate in his unexpectedly competitive re-election campaign Saturday to paint his independent challenger as a liberal Democrat and to mock him for refusing to identify with a major party.
Challenger Greg Orman got in his digs, too, during the event at the Kansas State Fair, poking fun at Roberts for repeatedly invoking Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's name in his answers and saying, "What I haven't heard from you is, 'Solve problems.'"
The debate capped a wild week. The Democratic candidate withdrew, apparently bolstering Orman's chances in November, and Roberts overhauled his struggling campaign by replacing its manager and bringing in two national GOP operatives. What was once expected to be an easy victory for the GOP as it seeks to gain control of the Senate is now viewed as a competitive race.
Roberts, 78, is seeking a fourth Senate term. Orman, a 45-year-old businessman from the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, has never held an elected office. He ran as a Democrat for Roberts' seat the last time it was up for grabs but dropped out well before the primary.
In front of about 2,000 people in an open-air fairgrounds arena, Roberts played up his experience and said he's the only candidate who can be trusted to fight Reid and Democratic President Barack Obama. He invoked Reid's name so often that many in the crowd started booing, jeering and hooting whenever he did.
While Roberts repeatedly suggested Orman would help Reid and the Democrats once he got to Washington, he concluded by criticizing Orman for saying he would caucus with whichever party wins a majority.
"Kansas needs someone in Washington with convictions and a backbone. I don't think my opponent has either," Roberts said in closing. "First he says he's a Republican. Then he says he's a Democrat. Just this year, he becomes an independent. Ladies and gentlemen, what will Greg Orman be next week?"
Orman has been unaffiliated since 2010, but he previously had been registered as both a Democrat and Republican at various times. He said after the debate that he is a centrist and that he grew disillusioned with the parties' leadership.
"Our system of government is broken, and we all know it," Orman said. "I've tried both parties, and like most Kansans, I've been disappointed."
Republicans have a nearly 20 percentage-point advantage among Kansas' 1.74 million registered voters and have won every Senate race in the state since 1932. But Roberts looked vulnerable after winning a tough GOP primary race with only 48 percent of the vote.
Roberts also has been dogged by questions about his residency. He owns a Washington-area home but lists his official residence as a rented space in the Dodge City home of two supporters.
The candidates were questioned about the issue during the debate and Orman said it didn't matter. But he took a shot afterward, saying of the new consultants helping Roberts: "He can bring some of his neighbors to help in this race."
Roberts, who was born and educated in Kansas, said he's done his "life's work here."
"Don't tell me I'm not from Kansas," he said. "My home is Dodge City and I'm damn proud of it."
Orman portrays himself as nonpartisan. He contributed to moderate Republican Scott Brown's campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2010. He also contributed to Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, but years before Akin's 2012 comment about "legitimate rape," which torpedoed his U.S. Senate bid that year.
Orman also contributed to the 2008 presidential campaigns of Democrats Obama and Hillary Clinton, and he gave $1,000 to Reid in 2007.
"Why should anybody believe you are independent?" Roberts said, as his supporters cheered and rang cowbells.
Orman said both chambers, the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate are being run with too much partisanship.
"Congress getting their act together is first and foremost what we need to do," Orman said.
Democratic nominee Chad Taylor did not participate in the debate. He ended his campaign Wednesday, but Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican backing Roberts, is keeping Taylor's name on the ballot, ruling that the withdrawal didn't comply with state election laws. Taylor vowed to challenge that decision.
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