Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter both cast themselves as enemies of special interests as they faced off in their final debate before Tuesday's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.
Halter called Lincoln's campaign contributors a "who's who" of special interests and described her as part of a broken system in Washington.
"Sen. Lincoln has referred to herself as the rope in a tug-of-war between competing interests, constantly being pulled in different directions," Halter said. "Folks, as your United States senator, I won't be the rope. I'll be the guy pulling the rope on behalf of middle-class families."
Lincoln, considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Washington, kept up her criticism of Halter as a darling of liberal groups and unions that are backing his bid.
"Today, the labor unions are funding my opponent in this primary because I don't agree 100 percent of the time," Lincoln said during the debate hosted by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Political Animals Club. Little Rock businessman D.C. Morrison also took part.
Lincoln has seen her approval ratings in Arkansas drop over the past year amid anger from both the right and left. Republicans have criticized her for supporting the health care overhaul, while liberal groups were frustrated that she opposed a government-run insurance option as part of it.
The race has been one of the most bitter and expensive in Arkansas history, with outside groups spending more than $5 million on radio and television ads, mailers and door-to-door visits.
Most polls show Lincoln leading Halter, but below the 50 percent support needed to win the nomination outright. Morrison, a poorly financed candidate who backs a repeal of the health care legislation, is threatening to pull away enough votes to force a Halter-Lincoln runoff June 8.
Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, defended her legislation to limit banks' ability to profit from derivatives, which are complex financial tools. Lincoln pushed back against criticism that she introduced the legislation to shore up support in the primary.
"I stood up to special interests and produced the toughest bill of anybody in Washington," she said.
Halter responded by questioning whether the bill would be a "bait and switch," with weaker legislation introduced after the primary.
Both Lincoln and Halter bemoaned the tone of the race.
"I have not run a negative campaign," Lincoln said. "I have run a comparative campaign."
Referring to a mailer Lincoln sent about Halter's work with some drug companies, Halter said: "I don't know how you can characterize, Sen. Lincoln, elevating the campaign by putting the state's lieutenant governor's picture on a prescription pill bottle. That wasn't a third party. That was you."
Morrison, who said he was proud to run a poorly funded campaign, said he had a simple response to the negative ads exchanged between Halter and Lincoln.
"We just change the channel in our house," he said.
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