COLUMBUS -- Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown called his opponent a "politician who can't be trusted," a political opportunist who relies on "clever, poll-tested sound bites" and cronies hired in high-paying positions.
"It's well established he can't be trusted to show up for work and do the job that he was elected to," Brown said, adding later, "He can't be trusted to tell the truth... Everyone in this room knows that Josh Mandel can't be trusted to fight for your job, because he's too concerned running for his next job."
But Mandel, the current state treasurer who hopes to unseat Brown next month, hammered on the incumbent as a longtime politician who blames others for the nation's problems, the "bailout Senator" who has been unable to pass a federal budget in years and who has not done enough to cut spending and the national debt.
"One thing I know for sure: We are not going to change Washington by sending Sherrod Brown there," Mandel said. "He's been there for 20 years. ... If you're happy about high unemployment rates, Sherrod Brown's your guy. If you're happy about higher tuition rates for your kids, Sherrod Brown's your guy. If you're happy about higher health care costs and government-run health care, Sherrod Brown's your guy."
So continued another day of heated rhetoric in what has become a nasty campaign battle for one of Ohio's seats in the U.S. Senate, with Mandel and Brown facing off in the first of three scheduled debates, this one before the City Club of Cleveland.
The sold-out event included cheers and jeers from a sometimes-raucous crowd, prompting the debate moderator on multiple occasions to urge less reaction.
Questions from a panel of journalists and several members of the audience ran the gamut from fracking regulations and the auto industry bailout to tax cuts and trade policy.
• Auto Bailout: Mandel has been asked repeatedly during the campaign whether he would have supported the federal bailout of the automobile industry, with much emphasis on plants across the state, from Defiance to Lordstown, and on the numerous suppliers that provide parts for vehicles.
He was asked about the issue again Monday and, specifically, whether the bailout benefited the state.
Mandel stuck to the answer he's given to reporters and editorial boards in recent weeks, saying he would not have supported legislation that cost thousands of Delphi employees their pensions.
"I would not have voted for that," he said. "I couldn't have, because it stripped from middle class retirees their pensions -- these Delphi employees in the state of Ohio, 60- and 70-year-old men and women, who lost almost all their pensions. ... I could not have supported a process that stripped pensions from middle class retirees and stripped jobs from mechanics and salesmen throughout the state of Ohio."
But Brown countered that the auto rescue package secured jobs for thousands of Ohioans.
"Josh, do you know about the Chevy Cruze and the Chevy Eco?" he asked. "The steel and the aluminum are made right here in Cleveland. The transmission comes out of Toledo. In Defiance, they build the engines. These are real jobs and real people. ... To be against the auto rescue just boggles my mind."
Brown also said he thought the federal stimulus package did help to improve the economy, sending billions of dollars to the state and cutting taxes for many Ohioans.
"The recovery act worked," he said. "The unemployment rate began to come down, not as much as people hoped it would, but it began to come down. The problems were much more serious in 2008 than the administration or any economist to speak of understood."
But Mandel said the stimulus did not work, with unemployment, gas prices, college tuition costs, health-care costs and foreclosure rates have risen since Brown took office.
"With all due respect Senator, you've had 20 years to try to solve these problems" he said. "And it's only gotten worse."
• Cronies: Mandel was questioned about hiring campaign workers into high-paying positions in the treasurer's office, after he chastised his predecessor for doing the same.
Mandel defended his staff selections, saying "the folks we've hired in our office are qualified professionals ... I will take a team of qualified professionals we have in our office, I will stack them up against anyone in your office, and I will take them to go change Washington, as well."
• Term Limits: Brown said, "I was wrong, I made a mistake," when he said in the past that he supported term limits and would not continue running for office.
"When I'm opposed by somebody who in seven years has run for four different offices, who promised in 2010 that he would serve his four-year term as state treasurer, who then within weeks was flying off to places like the Bahamas to raise money from payday lenders, raising money for a Senate race ... he clearly has no regard for any of that," Brown said.
• Fracking: Both candidates were asked whether they believed current federal and state regulations related to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, were adequate to protect the environment.
Brown said he would base his shale development-related decisions on two issues: what communities decide to permit in their areas and whether water supplies are protected.
"I don't buy the false choice, it's good environment or good jobs policy," he said.
Mandel applauded state lawmakers and the governor for energy law changes made earlier this year that included requirements for the disclosure of fracking fluids.
"I'm a strong believer in drilling for oil and gas in a responsible way, a way that protects the air we breathe, the water we drink and the environment for our kids and grandkids," he said.
• Tax Cuts: Mandel was unapologetic about pledging not to raise taxes if elected.
"I will do everything I can to advocate for lower taxes across the board, for the Middle Class and others, for job creators as well," he said. "We cannot tax our way to prosperity. If we're going to grow the economy here in the state of Ohio, if we're going to grow the economy nationally, we need a more simple tax code with lower tax rates, a broader base, and one that's more fair for the Middle Class."
Brown said Mandel's signature on the pledge effectively was "giving away your right to think."
"It means you can't close tax loopholes, the subsidies that this government and we taxpayers continue to give to oil companies," he said. "You can't close that loophole that says if a company in Willowick or Elyria shuts down and moves its operations overseas, you can get a tax break to do that. There's simply no sense in that kind of tax policy."
Brown and Mandel will meet in two other debates in coming days. The next is set for Thursday in Columbus, with a final session next week in Cincinnati.