By Mark Niquette
TOLEDO: Sticking mostly to familiar talking points but tussling on issues such as Social Security, Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican Rob Portman each made the case last night of having the better vision for Ohio as the state's next U.S. senator.
Portman, the former congressman, and Fisher, the state's lieutenant governor, held the first of their three televised debates at Bowsher High School that featured polished performances with a few pointed exchanges.
Fisher tried to portray Portman, who was trade adviser and budget director for President George W. Bush, as a Washington insider and the wrong option to replace retiring Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich.
''Ohio. Washington. Main Street. Wall Street. Export goods, export jobs,'' Fisher said. ''This is a clear choice.''
Portman accused Fisher, who was the state's development director, of making false statements and ''partisan attacks'' to distract from a failed record with the loss of nearly 400,000 jobs in Ohio on his watch.
''I don't think that's the right record to take to Washington,'' Portman said of Fisher. ''I'm running because I think we're heading in the wrong direction.''
The stakes were high, especially for Fisher, who has been trailing by double-digits in polls
and badly lagged Portman in fundraising.
Analysts said Fisher needed to change the momentum and he was aggressive, criticizing Portman repeatedly in his opening statement. But John Green, a University of Akron political scientist, said neither candidate appeared to make a major mistake or change many minds on the key issue this fall: the economy.
''Frankly, I didn't see anything tonight that is likely to change the dynamic of the race,'' Green said.
The candidates are scheduled to debate again on Friday at the Cleveland City Club.
Perhaps the sharpest disagreement was on Social Security. Fisher accused Portman of supporting previous proposals to privatize Social Security, which Portman flatly denied.
''I know it's getting close to Halloween, but I would ask Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher tonight to stop scaring seniors about Social Security,'' Portman said.
The Fisher campaign pointed to previous comments from Portman, including a 2007 interview on CNBC in which the campaign said Portman called President Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security ''very important and very sound.''
Fisher said after the debate that it ''certainly sounded to me like he's backing off his position on privatizing Social Security.''
Portman wouldn't meet with reporters after the debate, but his campaign manager, Bob Paduchik, said Fisher ''is clearly lying about'' Portman favoring privatization.
When shown the 2007 CNBC quote from Portman, spokesman Jeff Sadosky said it could have been taken out of context, charging that Fisher was going negative because he had nothing positive to say about his own record.
Both Fisher and Portman support a bipartisan commission to study how to ensure the future solvency of Social Security.
And they hammered home the major themes of their campaigns. For Portman, that means job losses in Ohio and Fisher's support for Democrat-led policies such as the federal stimulus package and the health-care overhaul.
Fisher has insisted that he can't be held responsible for the aftermath of the recession, which he blames on Portman and other Republicans.
At one point, Fisher said the federal deficit during Portman's tenure as budget director from 2006-07 was about $500 billion.
''No it wasn't,'' Portman could be heard saying off camera. The deficit, which peaked in 2004 at $412.7 billion, fell by more than $85 billion when Portman was budget director.
When Fisher was asked whether he would have voted to confirm the last four U.S. Supreme Court justices, he said he supported Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. But he said he didn't watch the confirmation hearings for John Roberts and Samuel Alito and didn't know how he would have voted.
Portman said he would have opposed Kagan as Voinovich did but didn't say how he would have voted on the other three justices.
The debates are sponsored by the Ohio Newspaper Organization of which the Akron Beacon Journal is a member.
Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com.