U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas escalated his war of words with independent opponent Greg Orman on Wednesday during their second scheduled debate in Overland Park.
“Trying to get Greg Orman’s position on an issue, any issue, is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,” Roberts said. “Kansas needs someone in the Senate with conviction and backbone. My opponent has neither.”
For the most part, Orman did not return the rhetorical fire. Instead, he continued his criticism that Democrats, Roberts and the incumbent’s fellow Republicans contribute to Washington gridlock.
“Both parties are failing Kansas,” Orman said. “I’m running as an independent to reject the false choices that the two-party system has presented us with.”
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The exchange — part of an hourlong debate sponsored by the Johnson County Public Policy Council — came as some polls showed Roberts pulling slightly ahead of Orman for the first time in the campaign.
A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Roberts leading Orman by five points among likely voters, 44 percent to 39 percent. A CNN/ORC poll showed likely voters favoring the Republican by one point, 49 percent to 48 percent.
Other polls earlier this week showed Orman leading. The Real Clear Politics average of all polls shows Orman ahead in the race, 44.7 percent to 42 percent. It’s a lead he’s held for several weeks.
Earlier in the week, an NBC News/Marist survey showed Orman leading with 48 percent to Roberts’ 38 percent of likely voters, with a 3.9 percentage point margin of error.
Roberts repeatedly referred to President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, accusing both of stalling progress on tax reform and enforcing immigration laws. Orman said he had supported Republicans in the past, but eventually decided neither party was fully committed to fixing the country.
Orman also repeated his pledge to oppose both Democrat Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, if either seeks election to a leadership position next year.
Roberts called Orman’s refusal to pledge to either Senate party “rather ridiculous.”
“Who will he vote for to lead the Senate? Who will he caucus with? What committees will he serve on,” Roberts went on. Orman said later that he would consider voting for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski for Senate leader.
Mum on minimum wage
Both candidates were asked if they supported an increase in the federal minimum wage. Neither answered the question.
Orman said he wanted to streamline the nation’s tax code, in part to limit tax advantages for overseas corporate income. Roberts said he wants a tax code that’s “lower, flatter, fairer.”
Whether the question was on entitlement programs, immigration or health care, Roberts spent much of Wednesday’s debate hammering Orman on trust issues. And Orman played it down the middle.
He said he contributed to the 2010 campaign of former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown – $2,000, records show – in an effort to block the advance of the federal health care law Obama signed that year. But he said there is no point in trying to repeal it, as Roberts has proposed.
Orman also proposed maintaining the current Social Security structure for Americans 50 and older, but raising the retirement age for wealthier Americans, a Republican-backed idea in Congress.
And, he said he would have voted for the bipartisan immigration measure in the Senate this year, which would have allowed people in the country illegally to stay if they had a job and fulfilled other obligations. The measure passed the Senate, with backing from 14 Republicans.
FEC records show Orman has written more than $46,000 in checks to himself, including a $10,000 transfer in July. Orman faces a deadline next week to disclose how much more – if any – he gave or loaned his campaign. Orman criticized Democrat and Republican Senate leadership, as well as Obama, Wednesday.
“I believe Obama and Reid are part of the problem,” he said.
“But senator,” he said, turning to Roberts, “you’re part of the problem, too.”
Contributing: Kansas City Star, Associated Press