Paul commits to McConnell as Ky. Senate candidates spar over issues

Kentucky GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul said Sunday he would support Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) if he is elected next month. 

In a nationally televized debate on "Fox News Sunday" with his Democratic opponent Jack Conway, Paul committed to backing his Kentucky colleague as leader after wavering on the issue since winning his party's nomination.

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"Yes, I think Mitch McConnell will be the leader again and hopefully the majority leader this time around," he told host Chris Wallace. After Wallace pressed him on whether that means he will vote for McConnell, Paul responded, "Yes, yes."

"I will vote for whoever comes out of the caucus as the Republican leader, absolutely," he said. "And I presume that that will be Senator McConnell."

Democrats had used Paul's uncertainty against him, arguing that his refusal to commit to vote for him showed internal divisions within the GOP between Tea Party-backed candidates like Paul and establishment figures like McConnell.

The minority leader had backed Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the GOP primary, but has since offered his full support to Paul.

During the debate, both candidates largely stuck to their set agendas: Paul cast himself as committed to tamping down federal spending and said he strongly opposed Democratic policies such as the stimulus, healthcare reform and a cap-and-trade energy plan, saying they have cost jobs in Kentucky and deepened the debt.

If elected, Paul, who has a single-digit lead over Conway, said he would "work for people in both parties," saying "the bipartisan nature of this has to be focused on the debt."

Conway painted Paul as out of touch with issues that matter to Kentucky, such as reducing drug abuse and expanding healthcare coverage. Conway also hit Paul for his skepticism of the Americans with Disabilities Act but steered clear of his controversial comments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"I just think he's out of touch with the values of mainstream Kentuckians...We value inclusivity," Conway said. "I'm not saying Dr. Paul is crazy, I'm saying his ideas are out of touch."

Paul responded that on most issues he favors some federal regulation but favors ceding some power to the states.

"I think it is a combination of federal, state and local regulations," he said. "There is always going to be a little bit of both."

Paul accused Conway of flip-flopping on issues such as the full extension of the expiring Bush tax cuts and cap-and-trade. Conway has broken from his Democratic colleagues and opposed cap-and-trade while backing a temporary extension of all the tax cuts, even those for upper-income earners. 

"I think that raising taxes, we shouldn't be doing it during a time of recession," Conway said.

Paul quickly shot back, "You were for them before you were against them, before you were for them again."

"Kentuckians are not going to tolerate someone who is [on the fence] on cap-and-trade," he added.

Conway also staked out refined positions on Democratic issues such as healthcare reform and the stimulus, saying he supports both but that both need tweaks.

He said that a bill allowing Medicare to negotiate its prescription drug rates directly with pharmaceutical companies would be "the first bill I would introduce if I am elected to the U.S. Senate."

Conway put Paul on the defensive on entitlement programs. On Social Security, Paul was pressed to say how he would uphold the program's long-term solvency. The GOP nominee said that the retirement age may need to be raised, but that people currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits should not have their benefits altered.

Although the overall tenor of the debate was mild, a few testy moments occurred. Paul was asked why he has not addressed Conway much on the campaign trail.

"We'll wait for him to catch up in the polls and then we'll talk about him more," he said.

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