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Ohio's Fisher and Portman reveal wide partisan divide in Senate debate

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 11:47 AM

Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican Rob Portman sparred over jobs, Social Security and trade in their first of three Senate debates in Ohio on Monday night, drawing a stark contrast for voters as the state struggles to recover from the recession.

During the hour-long forum in Toledo, Fisher, the lieutenant governor, who is trailing in recent polls, sought to tie his opponent to the Bush administration, reminding viewers of Portman's service as budget director and U.S. trade representative. Under Portman's watch, Fisher said, the federal deficit ballooned and Ohio lost 100,000 jobs to China.

"It's time that Congressman Portman tonight took responsibility for his role in helping cause this recession," Fisher said.

Portman dismissed the jab as a partisan attack and urged Fisher to answer for the 400,000 Ohio jobs that he said have disappeared over the past four years during Fisher's tenure as state development director. The former House member also accused the Democratic Congress of placing new burdens on struggling Ohio businesses through the health-care law. "Ohio can come back, but we need to turn things around in Washington," Portman said.

The battle lines between the two candidates were clear. Like many races across the industrial Midwest, the Fisher-Portman match is shaping up as a referendum on how best to restore prosperity to a region that has shed jobs and seen its quality of life plummet. But neither candidate offered fresh ideas, sticking closely to the economic playbooks that have defined the two parties for decades.

They offered two versions of the future, and two versions of the past. "Let's always remember that it's a national recession brought to you by the policies of George W. Bush and Congressman Portman," Fisher said.

To which Portman shot back: "We're falling behind, and these guys have not done the job. And now, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher wants to take that record to Washington."

Fisher called for more stringent trade and tax policies to discourage companies from moving overseas. He said he supported extending the Bush-era tax cuts, but not for the wealthiest households. He rejected cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age, although he does want a bipartisan commission to address the entitlement program's long-term fiscal problems. Fisher said he was open to changing certain portions of the health-care law, but "to repeal it is irresponsible."

Portman's economic solutions included more favorable tax and regulatory policies to encourage business development, more effective workforce training programs, and undefined spending cuts to lower the deficit. He said his health-care plan would include provisions to restrict malpractice lawsuits, a GOP priority left out of the new law.

Although the Bush administration had sought to create private Social Security accounts, Portman said it was "not true" that he supported privatizing the program. Fisher often quotes from a 2007 interview in which Portman called the Bush proposal "very sound."

Portman admonished Fisher to "stop scaring seniors" about Social Security. But he added, "We do need to look at reforming the system" to ensure that the entitlement program survives for future generations.

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