Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is in for a tough battle this fall. But in the Republican's first public appearance with the candidate that has put his re-election in jeopardy, Roberts made clear he's not only running against independent Greg Orman — he's running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Roberts and Orman faced off in a debate at the Kansas State Fair Saturday, just three days after Democratic nominee Chad Taylor tried to drop out of the race, opening the door for Orman to have a real shot at ousting the senator.
Roberts, who had not seemed to be taking the campaign particularly seriously, turned it on Saturday and came out swinging. He cast Orman, who has not yet said which party he would caucus with if elected, as a vote for Reid as Senate Majority Leader.
"I am the only candidate on this stage that will vote to put Harry Reid out to pasture," Roberts said. "My opponent wants you to believe he's an independent. He is not. He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy. He has given thousands of dollars to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, listen to this, listen to this, Harry Reid. Now Kansans know better."
Roberts stuck to that message through the whole debate, bringing every single question back to Reid. So much so that Orman cracked, "It's shocking that we didn't hear the name Harry Reid in that," when Roberts chose to mention Obama, instead, in an answer about the 2nd Amendment.
Orman, for his part, tried to thread the needle of attacking both parties.
"I've tried both parties, and, like lots of Kansans, I've been disappointed," he said. He took jabs at everyone – Reid, Obama, Roberts, House Republicans.
But multiple times, Orman was put in the uncomfortable position of starting his answers, "I agree with Senator Roberts ..." – not the ideal choice of words for a candidate trying to draw contrasts.
Orman was less directly confrontational in his attacks on Roberts, and when he did take swings, they did not always land. Roberts has been attacked for living in Virginia since the New York Times reported that he does not own a permanent residence in his home state, and he was asked if residence in one's state was important. It could be Roberts' major weakness, but Orman did not really take him to task.
And Roberts was ready with his defense.
"I know more about Kansas than anybody else on this stage ... I have been more main streets than any other public official. As a matter of fact, Bob Dole just called me and said he's out here trying to catch up. I am a fourth generation Kansan, I was born here, educated here, done my life's work here. Don't tell me I'm not from Kansas. The people of Kansas elected me to go to the U.S. Senate; the U.S. Senate is in Washington. My home is Dodge City, and I'm damn proud of it," Roberts said.
"I suspect, senator, I've been to Dodge City more this year than you have," Orman said. He said he had been four times.
"Well I've been about seven, so you're wrong there," Roberts shot back.
"And I've probably lived more of my adult years in Kansas than you have," Orman continued, sounding somewhat rushed and hesitant.
"But I will say, to be perfectly candid, I don't think it matters," Orman said. "I don't think it matters where someone lives, I think it matters how they vote. And when it comes to voting for Kansas, and standing for Kansas values, Sen. Roberts has taken a sharp turn to the right."
When asked about Taylor ceasing his campaign (officially, he is still on the ballot ), Roberts suggested Orman had colluded with Democrats.
"This is the first time I've seen national Democrats really work very hard to get a Democrat off the ballot," Roberts said.
"I gotta tell you, when Claire McCaskill calls the Democratic candidate and urges him to get off the ballot you know that something fishy is going on," Roberts said, before again launching into the message: "My opponent has a record of voting for Barack Obama, running against me as a Democrat, and donating to Harry Reid."
Orman said that when asked if he had anything to do with Taylor dropping out, he said only: "I think our progress in the polls was obviously something he had to take into consideration. I think the fact that our message is resonating with Kansans."
The race is rated Tilts Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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