DENVER, Colo. — Assertive moderators and a fiery Mark UdallMark UdallEnergy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium Two vulnerable senators lack challengers for 2016 MORE made Wednesday night's Colorado Senate debate not just the candidates' last but also their most eventful.
The stakes remained the highest for Udall, with three consecutive public polls showing him trailing Gardner as ballots hit the mailboxes of every registered voter in the state this week.
Both spoke out on Ebola for the first time since a second Texas healthcare worker was revealed to have symptoms of the virus. Gardner, as he's done before, called for an "immediate travel ban" from Ebola-infected countries, and Udall showed a cautious openness to such a proposal, which has picked up traction among GOP lawmakers as Ebola continues to spread in the U.S.
"We ought to be able to listen to the doctors and the healthcare professionals. If they believe that we ought to close our border and we ought to restrict flights to and from West Africa, let's listen to them. But senators and congressmen shouldn't be making those decisions," Udall said.
He also jabbed Gardner for voting for cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) budget, a reference to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget and a line of attack that has cropped up in competitive races nationwide as both parties look to gain an advantage on the issue.
Gardner hit back by pointing out that both candidates voted for across-the-board cuts to federal agencies with the sequester, but stood by the cuts in the Ryan budget.
"Perhaps the CDC should quit spending money on things like jazzercise, urban gardening and massage therapy and direct that money to where it's appropriate — protecting the health of the American people," he said.
But the questions during the debate — and how the candidates chose to dodge them — were perhaps more revealing than the substance of the candidates' answers themselves.
The moderators at one point asked Udall whether his campaign's focus on reproductive health has been because it's the most important issue in the race or if it's "about gathering enough female votes to help push you over the edge." And they questioned why he's facing a double-digit deficit in the polls with men.
Udall delivered a classic dodge on the second question, declaring that "the only poll that really matters is the one on Election Day," insisting he has a broad coalition of support.
Democrats, however, were gleeful at the sight of moderator Kyle Clark attempting to nail Gardner down on his comments arguing that a federal bill defining life at conception — and effectively abolishing abortion — that Gardner has cosponsored is different from a Colorado measure that does essentially the same thing, which Gardner now opposes.
"We are not going to debate" whether that law bans abortion, "because it's a fact," Clark said. He went on to ask what Gardner's continued claim that the federal law is different says "about your judgment more broadly," asking whether it means he has "a difficult time admitting when you're wrong" or that "you're not telling us the truth."
Gardner stood by his previous comments, declaring that he doesn't support the Colorado measure and that his sponsorship of the federal bill is "simply a statement that I support life." He went on to point to the Denver Post's editorial endorsing him, which slammed Udall for running an "obnoxious, one-issue campaign" for his focus on women's issues.
And Gardner's conservatism, which he's successfully kept at arms' length for much of the campaign, shone through during some answers Wednesday night. Gardner said he doesn't believe humans contribute to climate change "to the extent that has been reported in the news," alleging there's scientific disagreement on that issue, and said while he'd attend a gay wedding, he wouldn't officiate one if asked.
Udall delivered Republicans' opportunity for attack as well.
He couldn't name a policy on Obama's upcoming agenda that he would oppose, an exchange Republicans blasted out as evidence the senator is in lockstep with the president.
Asked about the biggest "non-issue" Congress continues to debate, Udall named the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which are the center of an ongoing but thus far largely fruitless investigation led by GOP lawmakers.
Gardner pounced, calling it "outrageous that people died and Senator Udall is refusing to provide answers for the families of this country." National Republicans were blasting out the comments via social media and email within moments.
The debate had its light-hearted moments as well: in response to a question on the candidates' experience with "civil disobedience," Gardner said he had disobeyed his parents "by having a Pepsi after 9 o'clock at night."
But the tone, overall, mirrored how the candidates plan to do battle in the final three weeks of the race: tense, aggressive and relentless.