TOLEDO, Ohio — Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Republican challenger John Kasich turned up the heat Thursday in the final debate of their tightening race, sparring most vigorously on taxes and the road out of the economic crisis.
The pair largely echoed partisan themes playing out across the country — the Democrat Strickland blaming Bush administration policies and Wall Street greed for the recession, Kasich blaming big government, high taxes and overregulation.
Kasich's strong early lead has shrunk in recent polls, but he's still ahead of Strickland in most polls. The pair are neck and neck in the money race and are engaged in an expensive, nasty volley of TV ads.
During the debate at the University of Toledo, Kasich, 58, said Strickland's move last year to call off an income tax cut was a tax increase.
Strickland said he froze — not raised — income taxes at current rates and said the move allowed $800 million to be spent on education.
Kasich, a former congressman, Fox News commentator and investment banker, faulted Strickland for doing too little to lessen Ohio's tax burden, noting the state's largest business and small-business groups endorsed his candidacy.
"If you had done what you said and you promised you'd do, which was to turn Ohio around, you would have created a government more effective and more efficient, and you would have dealt with the tax situation," Kasich said. "But instead what you did is you raised spending."
Strickland, 69, said Kasich's proposal to eliminate the state income tax over an unspecified period would devastate the state, hurting public schools and making higher education less affordable.
He stalwartly defended the federal stimulus as helping save the economy both nationally and in Ohio.
"I don't know what you would have had the president and our Democratic friends do, but the fact is that 8.5 million jobs were lost, Congressman, during the Bush administration," he said. "We have taken firm action to stabilize this economy, the free fall has been stopped, and all you and your friends want to do is just criticize and say no, no, no."
Kasich said Strickland administration policies are what led to the loss of 380,000 jobs over the past four years. He pointed to newspaper and business group endorsements that say his ideas have the best chance of making the hard-hit manufacturing state more prosperous.
"The bottom line is we need to have a job-creating environment and culture in this state," said Kasich. "We can get it done. If we keep doing the same thing, we keep drifting."
Strickland reiterated his accusation that Kasich is a former Lehman Brothers managing director who personifies the misbehavior on the financial sector that led to the Great Recession.
Kasich retorted: "These are the kind of distortions that I've had to listen to for about a year, and I'm glad we're here tonight to debate."
Associated Press writer John Seewer contributed to this report.
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