CLEVELAND (AP) - Republican Josh Mandel finally made it clear Monday that he wouldn't have supported the auto industry bailout, an issue backed and touted at nearly every turn by his Democratic opponent in the race for Ohio's U.S. Senate seat.
Mandel and incumbent Sherrod Brown faced off for their first debate, exchanging insults in front of a lively crowd over issues that have played out on a barrage of TV commercials in what is one of the most costly and closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country.
Brown has made his support of the auto bailout a central part of his campaign, saying it helped out 800,000 people in the state who work in auto-related jobs. Up until now, Mandel had refused to say whether he would have gone against keeping General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC afloat.
Mandel, elected Ohio's state treasurer two years ago, said Monday that while he supports policies that help the auto industry, he could not have supported the bailout because it also meant the loss of pensions for nonunion employees at Delphi Corp., a former General Motors subsidiary, and the loss of jobs for mechanics and salespeople at car dealerships that were forced to close.
"I'm not a bailout senator," Mandel said. "He's the bailout senator."
Brown said that opposing the auto rescue "just boggles my mind," noting how so many auto assembly and parts plants were located in Ohio. "These are real jobs and real people," he said.
The government sent $62 billion in tax dollars to the two automakers in 2008 and 2009 amid concerns that they were about to shut down and sink the economy.
Republicans seeking to gain Senate seats are targeting Brown, who won a surprise victory six years ago. Both campaigns and outside groups have spent millions flooding the airwaves with ads that have taken on a nasty tone leading up to the Nov. 6 election. A study by the Wesleyan Media Project found that $6 million was spent on more than 10,000 ads in the state during the last three weeks of September alone.
Polls have shown that Brown has an edge, but the race remains tight.
Brown accused Mandel of being more concerned about running for a higher office than doing his job as state treasurer. Mandel countered that Brown is a career politician whose liberal policies have hurt Ohio.
Both stuck to those themes throughout the debate.
"You've had 20 years to solve these problems and it's only gotten worse," Mandel said to Brown when both were asked about whether stimulus programs under the Obama administration had benefited Ohio. "I'm not for bailouts."
Brown said the stimulus programs have helped unemployment come down and kept teachers and firefighters on the job.
Mandel said gas prices have gone up and income has dropped since Brown first went to Washington. Brown, 59, was elected to the U.S. House in 1992 and is serving his first term in the Senate.
Brown took Mandel to task for signing an anti-tax pledge that could prevent him from striking deals in Washington necessary to close business tax loopholes. He also said he thought Congress was moving toward living within its means, a remark that drew laughter from the audience.
"That's Washington speak," Mandel said, using that phrase more than once during the debate. "The reality is that it's been three years since they've passed a budget in Washington."
Mandel, 35, was elected to statewide office in 2010. He'd been a Cleveland-area city councilman and state legislator. He has faced criticism throughout the campaign for hiring friends and political operatives into his state office and missing official state duties.
"The folks we've hired are qualified professionals," Mandel said, drawing more laughter from the audience.