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Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul told an audience of Kentucky farmers Thursday their federal payments may need to be cut in the interest of national debt reduction, a declaration his Democratic rival said posed a threat to tens of thousands of the state's residents.
"I'm always going to put Kentucky first. I'm not going to come up with a risky scheme," Attorney General Jack Conway said in a feisty joint appearance with his tea party-backed opponent in one of the country's most closely watched races.
Appearing before the state Farm Bureau Federation board of directors, Paul denied that he favors elimination of the Agriculture Department and steered well clear of saying he wanted to get rid of farm support programs despite Conway's accusations that he did.
Instead, Paul said free trade would benefit farmers and jabbed at Conway. "I won't be afraid to stand up to the unions who oppose" pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, he said.
The two-hour event occurred little more than 100 days before the election. Most polls show Paul holding a modest lead in the wake of his surprising primary victory last spring over the hand-picked candidate of the state's dominant Republican, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
While organizers were careful to stipulate that the event was not a debate, it had all the trappings of one.
Even so, Conway and Paul agreed on several key issues.
Both said they oppose a new energy tax and a trading system known as "cap and trade" to reduce carbon emissions.
They also favor extending in their entirety the tax cuts that passed in 2001 and 2003, when Republican George W. Bush was president. The reductions are due to expire at the end of the year, and many Democrats in Congress oppose renewing the tax cuts for upper-income earners.
They disagreed on the health care legislation that Congress passed earlier in the year. Paul said he would have voted against it as a government takeover of health care. Conway said he would have voted for it despite some misgivings. He said it would create coverage for about 654,000 residents of the state who lack it.
From the outset, the two men sought to use the appearance to frame a larger debate that will unfold in the weeks leading up to Nov. 2.
While Conway repeatedly suggested his rival is too extreme for the state, Paul said he was telling the truth about the nation's fiscal situation.
For his part, Paul said repeatedly that regardless of Conway's attempt to campaign as a moderate, his party is controlled by President Barack Obama and liberal congressional leaders. "The thing is he's going to go up there and cast his first vote for Harry Reid, and Harry Reid is no moderate," Paul said, referring to the Senate majority leader.
Paul said he would be supporting McConnell.
Conway demurred, saying, "I'm not really going to talk about" a leadership election, then pivoted to note that Paul had earlier said he was not committed to supporting McConnell.
In fact, McConnell emerged as something of a prize to be wrestled over — an odd development given the role he played in trying to defeat Paul in the GOP primary.
For his part, Conway said the first thing he would do when it came time to write a new farm bill was to "call up Mitch McConnell and ask him what was best for Kentucky."
The state has about 485,000 farm families, according to Mark Haney, president of the state Farm Bureau Federation, and in his opening remarks, Paul promised to "fight for the Kentucky farmer against an overzealous government."
Responding to a question moments later, Conway attacked.
"My opponent has stated unequivocally on the record that he wants to do away with the Agriculture Department and he wants to do away with farm subsidies" — positions that Paul denies holding.
Conway added that about 75 percent of farm bill funds that reach Kentucky are for nutrition programs such as federally subsidized school lunches and breakfasts that serve hundreds of thousands of children.
"Are we going to do away with that? Are we going to do away with that in these difficult economic times?" he said.
The rest, he said, give "farmers the assurance they can have a good season," and create a cushion against a devastating year.
But Paul said, "You can stand up here and pander and you can say we will give you what you want or you can acknowledge that our country has problems."
He added, "We are drowning in a sea of debt. And it's not whether you're for or against farmers. If you want to be for farmers, open up markets, Jack. But don't just say you're for farmers when the money is gone."
Conway was somewhat vague on the issue of free trade agreements, saying, "There's not as much daylight between Dr. Paul and myself as you would think on this issue."
He said he was "not necessarily opposed to trade agreements," but said the state has lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the past decades.
Unions generally oppose free trade deals, fearing they will lead to the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas.
Paul, who says he has had a habit of "just popping off" for the past two decades, made a handful of claims to buttress his points to farm bureau officials, but neither he nor his office produced any immediate evidence to support them.
He said at any given time, about 1 million people in Britain are "waiting in line for health care," a statement meant to underscore his opposition to the legislation that Congress sent to Obama earlier this year.
Paul also said Obama had appointed 43 czars, using a term that normally means creating high-ranking jobs that do not require Senate confirmation. He did not name any examples, and the White House has challenged similar assertions by other critics.
Paul also complained that federal authorities were too often setting regulations to govern prison sentences for drug offenders, a matter he said should be left for state or local officials.
Congress sets the guidelines for federal sentences, while terms for state crimes are generally the prerogative of state lawmakers.
Paul's campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.