By Mark Niquette and Joe Hallett
COLUMBUS: The third and final televised debate between Ohio's two major candidates for the U.S. Senate Tuesday night was indecisive, but instructive to voters, who got a clear delineation of the differences between Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher.
The debate featured a high level of discourse on a range of issues, from the economy and trade to gays in the military and bipartisanship, with pointed parries but no personal attacks. There were no Hail Marys lobbed and no blood drawn to alter the race, which polls show Portman leads by double digits.
Fisher acknowledged that Ohioans are hurting and angry in the aftermath of the recession, but he accused Portman of supporting large corporations, banks and other special interests.
''I'm not going there to carry their water, I'm not going there to curry their favor, I'm going there to fight for you,'' Fisher said.
Portman said Fisher supports the federal stimulus bill, health-care overhaul and other aspects of what he referred to more than once as the ''Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda,'' which he argued hasn't been
''If you like the way things are going, you think we're headed in the right direction, you should probably support my opponent,'' he said. ''If you're ready for a change, if you believe there's a better way, I hope you'll join our cause.''
The hourlong debate was sponsored by the Ohio Newspaper Organization, a cooperative of the Beacon Journal and the state's seven other largest newspapers, and featured questioning from four newspaper reporters.
Fisher, 59, entered the debate in his third week with no TV ads on the air. With roughly a 7-1 fundraising advantage through June, Portman, 54, has been advertising steadily since then.
The candidates must file reports showing campaign finance activity through September by Friday. Fisher said after the debate he doesn't discuss his TV strategy but he will have adequate resources to get his message out.
The candidates several times posited themselves as bipartisan, but Fisher attacked Portman for his answer to a question asking him to name one piece of legislation signed by President Barack Obama that he supported. Likewise, Fisher was asked to name a bill he supported that was signed into law by former President George W. Bush.
''Wow,'' Portman said, ''the Obama administration hasn't had a whole lot of legislation I support, because I think what they have done in terms of the stimulus package, the health-care legislation, the financial services regulation, it's going to make it harder to create jobs here in America.''
Portman said Obama had not lived up to his 2008 campaign promise to bring Americans together because he farmed out the details of major legislation to Democratic congressional leaders who opted for ''big government solutions,'' while eschewing GOP amendments.
''These proposals are not working because they didn't have input from both sides,'' Portman said.
Fisher replied: ''What you just heard was the typical Washington answer, somebody who says he's bipartisan but in the entire two minutes couldn't find one thing that he could agree with. It doesn't sound too bipartisan to me; it sounds like a rubber-stamp, party-line guy who's going to go there and oppose everything the Democrats do.''
Fisher said that ''one of the things [Bush] did that was good was give a middle-class tax cut, and you know what? I think we should extend it.''
Blame for lost jobs
The candidates also sparred on the key issue in the race, the economy. Portman has criticized Fisher, the state's former development director, for the 397,600 jobs lost on his watch. Fisher insisted he helped save and create jobs, but federal policies that Portman supported as trade adviser and budget director in the Bush administration overwhelmed Ohio and other states.
''If you want somebody who talks the talk and want somebody who was in [Washington] D.C. for 20 years, creating the policies that put people out of work, he's your guy,'' Fisher said. ''But if you want somebody who doesn't whine and complain but gets on the field and actually saves and create jobs, I hope you'll support Lee Fisher.''
Responded Portman: ''Well, if you have been on the field, it certainly hasn't been a productive game for you. I mean unbelievable. The numbers don't lie.''
The candidates differ sharply on foreign trade agreements, with Portman saying the United States should ratify pending free trade agreements with South Korea and other countries, accusing Fisher of wanting to stymie new job-creating trade agreements.
''He wants to renegotiate those agreements that are absolutely critical to Ohio,'' Portman said.
Fisher said he believes ''we should be exporting more goods not less, but unfortunately, the way Congressman Portman has done this over the years is that he thinks that it's worth paying the price of exporting jobs at the same time.''
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