Republican Richard Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly faced off Monday for the first time in a debate that saw them repeating many of the hard-edged charges that have marked their contentious campaign to be Indiana's next U.S. senator, but they landed few blows.
When Donnelly called Mourdock an "unapologetic tea party leader" Monday night in Indianapolis, Mourdock questioned the label and said he is running as a Republican.
"We have a Mourdock versus Mourdock debate going on. They're not my words, they're your words," Donnelly said.
Mourdock hit back, saying Donnelly portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative when he ran for Congress but voted for debt limit increases and the federal health care law.
Donnelly and Mourdock spent about as much time looking at each other as they did the camera, trading the same accusations they've made throughout their tight Indiana Senate battle. Mourdock repeatedly tied Donnelly to President Barack Obama and his policies and challenged him to explain his views. For his part, Donnelly continued to criticize Mourdock for comments that he would seek less bipartisanship if elected.
"I think we need to be saying here principle is more important than partisanship. We can't just have people caving in because of partisanship," Mourdock replied, repeating an argument that bipartisanship in Washington used to mean Republicans bowing to Democratic requests for more spending.
At one point, Mourdock chided Democrats for what he said was taking a statement he made at a tea party meeting about the constitutionality of Medicare out of context. But Donnelly said Mourdock was being disingenuous.
"We're not that dumb. We know what you were implying and we know what you were driving at," Donnelly told Mourdock.
Libertarian Andrew Horning joined the two on stage, but was often outside the battle. He argued Donnelly and Mourdock are no better than "cogs in the machine" that had left the nation with massive debt.
"Why would anyone vote for the status quo again?" Horning said.
The three men squared off at the WFYI studios in Indianapolis. It was the same location Mourdock and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar met in April. A few weeks after that meeting, Mourdock beat Lugar by a 20-point margin in the Republican primary.
Indiana's battle is among about a half-dozen races that will determine which party controls the Senate and has drawn national attention and money from outside groups. The race has been dominated by outside spending from Republican- and Democrat-aligned groups, including the conservative Crossroads GPS and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's super PAC.
Since the primary, Mourdock has struggled to bring moderate "Lugar Republicans" back into the fold, with polls consistently showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence outperforming Mourdock by a dozen or so points.
The challenge for Mourdock has been to refocus the race away from him and onto Donnelly. Mourdock's early stumbles — from his comments about compromise to fundraising appeals that continued to hit Lugar well after the primary was over — placed him on the defense and spurred Republican senators to flock to the state in an attempt to bolster his credibility.
Donnelly has run a steady campaign focused on Mourdock but was forced Monday to defend unpopular votes such as his support of the federal health care law and his 2008 endorsement of Obama.
Mourdock and Donnelly tried to pin each other on perceived weaknesses but were largely unsuccessful on stage.
"You've again endorsed Barack Obama. Would you please explain why he's the right choice for America and even more, the right choice for Hoosiers?" Mourdock asked. Donnelly answered by talking about Mourdock's fight against the Chrysler bailout.
Donnelly asked Mourdock why he wrote Lugar "betrayed conservatives" in a fundraising appeal. Mourdock answered by saying Donnelly contributed to an "ever-growing" government while working in Congress.
Mourdock said after the debate the word choice in the fundraising appeal was a mistake made by a contractor and not something he would have repeated.
The candidates plan to meet again Oct. 23 for one more debate before the election.