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Analysis: Pat Roberts goes aggressive on Greg Orman, governor debate more even

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, left, answers a question while independent candidate Greg Orman listens during a debate at the Kansas State Fair Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Hutchinson, Kan.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, left, answers a question while independent candidate Greg Orman listens during a debate at the Kansas State Fair Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Hutchinson, Kan. AP

Pat Roberts faced the tough task Saturday of stabilizing a Senate campaign beset with unusual turbulence.

The last four days saw the rapid-fire rise of a formidable independent candidate, the Democratic nominee’s sudden departure from the race and the firing of the senator’s long-time top political aide.

But at a lively State Fair debate in Hutchinson, Kan., before a raucous, standing-room-only crowd, Roberts got much of it done.

Buoyed by his decades of Washington experience, the Republican incumbent presented a clear rationale for another term while aggressively confronting his independent opponent, Greg Orman.

“He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy,” Roberts charged, speaking of Orman.

It was a performance that should fire up a GOP base that needed firing up, and that surely was the point of the senator’s stick-it-to-him approach.

In the governor’s debate that kicked off the morning, incumbent Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis engaged in as entertaining and fast-paced an exchange as anyone could have expected.

Davis pounded the governor for his failed tax “experiment” and for placing the state in such difficult financial straits that it can’t respond to new issues, such as water issues out west.

Brownback countered that Davis would bring Obamacare to the state and hurt poor Kansans with his tax policies.

Said Brownback, “Everything you’ve heard from Paul Davis is wrong.”

Said Davis, “You've never made public schools a priority.”

Picking a winner in the gubernatorial face-off was tougher.

Name association was a common tactic all morning. Brownback linked Davis to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Davis connected Brownback to the man the governor backed for president in 2012 — Gov. Rick Perry who, Davis noted, is now under indictment in Texas.

Roberts, meantime, tied Orman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid so frequently that it became a running joke as the debate ended.

All in all, it was a big day in Kansas politics following a crazy week that left the Senate race a one-on-one duel between Roberts and Orman after Democrat Chad Taylor’s decision to quit.

On Thursday, Roberts fired Leroy Towns, his longtime top campaign aide, in favor of a Washington political pro.

All the maneuvering left partisans jockeying for advantage in a race that could determine Senate control in Washington.

Recent polls have showed that both Davis and Orman are running competitively — if not leading — their respective races, and the two Kansas contests are now fixtures on the nation’s political radar screen.

On Saturday, Orman veered between agreeing with Roberts at times and backing Democratic and Republican proposals on many of the country’s big issues. His focus, he said, was solving problems, not partisan politics, but he was vague in his answers at times.

His aim was to present a candidacy of reasonableness and an appealing alternative to the endless rounds of Washington infighting that he said Roberts had contributed to for so long. Whether his approach of taking a little from the Democrats and a little from the Republicans will work will be a fascinating experiment of his own.

It’s a strikingly different style that lacks the stridency of traditional partisan politics.

Orman could pull it off.

For a first debate, he performed admirably. But his presentation might work better before smaller crowds than a packed State Fair grandstand audience that screamed for red meat.

Near debate’s end, Roberts bore down hard on the candidacy of an independent who would be something of an outlier in Washington.

“I just want to know when you’re going to take a stand and tell us what party you’re going to caucus with?” Roberts thundered. “Are you going to be a Republican one day and a Democrat the next...?”

Then he demanded, “What are you going to be?”

Orman never answered, even though he started his closing statement shortly afterward. The challenge begged a response. Orman in 2008 began a Senate campaign as a Democrat, but has backed some Republicans.

The back and forth has confused some Kansans who want to know a lot more about Orman and what makes him tick.

The hour-long session demonstrated why an independent faces such a tough challenge. Orman represents a path that voters have never taken before.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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