Senate hopefuls take aim at Landrieu

Greg Nash

Louisiana voters were treated to a rare debate with all three Senate candidates on stage Wednesday night, with one spending much of the night on defense.

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Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuLouisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy Crowded field muddies polling in Louisiana Senate race MORE (D-La.) took heavy fire from both Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and former Air Force Col. Rob Maness in the second and final televised debate featuring all three contenders. 

Maness and Landrieu have faced off multiple times before, but Cassidy — running strong in polling of an expected runoff matchup with the senator — has largely avoided the forums and their potential for missteps.

He was asked about his debate dodges Wednesday night and the perception that he's trying to skate through to the runoff by playing it safe. Cassidy said he wanted to "meet as many voters as possible" in the limited time he has and that the two debates had been "adequate" to address the issues.

On Wednesday night, he took every opportunity to tie Landrieu to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the heavily Republican state.

"Sen. Landrieu's first vote will be for Harry Reid for Senate majority leader," Cassidy said. "Harry Reid has turned the Senate into a rubber stamp for Barack Obama, approving his agenda."

Cassidy also took aim at Landrieu's central argument for reelection — the idea that her long tenure and clout in the Senate is invaluable for Louisianans.

He declared that Landrieu "has clout," and "she uses it for Barack Obama." And he noted Landrieu's pledge to get a vote for the Keystone XL oil pipeline in the Senate but has yet been unsuccessful.

"She said she had done everything in her power — that just means she's not very powerful," Cassidy charged.

In response, Landrieu pledged: "We are going to get a vote. I will continue to work on it" and said she had increased support from three Democratic senators to 11.

Even as Cassidy attacked Landrieu's clout, she referenced her work in the Senate throughout the night, attempting to frame herself as the only candidate with the experience to get things done.

"I've been to the border — I'm not sure these two men have," Landrieu said at one point to bolster her answer on border control.

And Landrieu tacked to the right on a handful of issues, expressing support for a "smart fence" on the border that could differentiate between deer and humans; a 21-day quarantine for nurses and doctors returning from treating Ebola patients as "a minimum we should do" to address the crisis and for leaving "all options on the table," including ground troops, to tackle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

She also worked to show her distance from President Obama, noting, in particular, she restored funding to the Coast Guard budget against his wishes.

"Neither one of them read the Coast Guard budget the way that I do because I'm the chair of the committee," she said of her opponents. 

"The president of the United States undercut the Coast Guard budget, and I restored the money over the wishes of the president, because sometimes I don't agree with the president, contrary to what these two say." 

But she gave Republicans ammunition for attacks, at one point defending her use of charter planes, which sparked a controversy when an independent analysis found she had paid for tens of thousands of dollars of campaign trips on chartered planes with her official Senate budget.

Landrieu said she took "full responsibility for the error," but that she used the planes "to be able to move around the state more quickly and efficiently."

Maness, a Tea Party-backed insurgent, at times hit both Landrieu and Cassidy, charging both were "ducking responsibility" by being away from Washington while the threat of ISIS remained, and accusing them both of "hyper-partisan extremism" that fails to find solutions.

He largely honed in on Obama and Landrieu's support of his policies and appointees, and framed himself as the everyman, at one point declining to offer a proposal to fix Social Security, because "I'm not gonna talk from a legislative perspective here."

Polling shows Landrieu locked in the toughest reelection fight of her political career, with both her and Cassidy heading to a runoff in December. There, Cassidy has opened up a lead over the senator in early polling.