-- At times it was hard to tell who was the Democrat and who was the Republican in what has shaped up as one of the most important Senate races in the country.

Oklahoma's Senate candidates faced off on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, with Rep. Brad Carson (D) repeatedly embracing GOP policies and President Bush, and Republican Tom Coburn, a former House member, invoking John F. Kennedy's name and suggesting as "evil" a $442 billion budget deficit brought on by a GOP Congress and administration.

Carson, a former Rhodes scholar, stuck closely to his strategy of painting Coburn as a "gadfly" with a propensity to make off-the-wall comments, and whose voting record indicates he cares more about his ideology than supporting projects for Oklahoma.

"The truth is this: Tom Coburn did nothing for the 2nd Congressional District in six years in Congress -- voted against road funding, voted against farmers and ranchers, said it made him sick, physically sick. He calls Medicare a Soviet-style program," Carson said.

Coburn tried to show the second-term House member as a closet liberal pandering to his conservative state, who wants to "hide the ball" on his voting record. "There's only 10 percent of the members of Congress that want to spend more money than Brad does," Coburn said.

But Coburn spent much of his time during the 30-minute debate defending himself, whereas Carson was able to advocate his own moderate credentials, and draw his differences with Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry on key topics such as Iraq. He said he disagrees with Kerry's statement that Iraq was a "wrong" war.

"I supported the president and the resolution when it came through Congress," Carson said. "I believe that our success in Iraq is critical to our future. And I believe that, if anything, we should be more vigorous in destroying the sanctuaries that terrorists have carved out for themselves."

Coburn and Carson are locked in a nasty race for the seat being vacated by Republican Don Nickles. Polls show Carson leading after a month of aggressive campaigning and advertising, coupled with revelations about Coburn's work as a doctor and some odd comments by Coburn that the Carson campaign ensured made it into the public domain.

Moderator Tim Russert pressed Coburn on some of those issues. He asked Coburn to explain a recent comment that he would have voted against the USA Patriot Act, which Carson supports. Coburn said, "I support the president's policies. I would have voted for the Patriot Act. . . . I said I had some concerns. Anytime that we are asked to give up freedom to maintain our freedom, I have some concerns with it."

Coburn was also asked about a recent remark characterizing the race as a choice between "good and evil." Coburn, a family doctor, maintained that it was not a personal comment about Carson, but a general comment about values in the country.

When Russert asked Coburn about recent reports that he sterilized a 20-year-old woman without her written permission, Coburn said she had verbally asked him for the procedure and charged Carson with a "smear" campaign.

"He talks about a smear campaign, but all the wounds have been self-inflicted," Carson shot back, adding that Coburn once called state legislators "crap heads" and said the acclaimed Holocaust film "Schindler's List" was too obscene for television.

Coburn found himself having to pronounce what should be a given -- his support of Bush -- when Russert asked about his endorsement of conservative commentator Alan Keyes for president against Bush in the 2000 primary.

Coburn did not retreat from another controversial comment he made in August, when he suggested that those who perform abortions should be subject to the death penalty.

"In many states we don't have the death penalty. In other states we do," he said. "But I believe that we have to stay on the side of life. If somebody intentionally takes life at any stage throughout the country, except to save a life, and that's innocent life, I think we have to use the law that's on the books to respond to that, I sure do."

Oklahoma has not had a Democratic senator in 10 years, since David L. Boren resigned. Political analysts see the race as an interesting tossup in a state that favors registered Democrats, but has voted increasingly Republican in the past 40 years. Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964, was the last Democrat to carry Oklahoma in the presidential election, and Bush is leading in polls by 20 points.

Democrat Brad Carson, left, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma, debates with Republican Tom Coburn on NBC's "Meet the Press."