HUTCHINSON, Kan. (TheBlaze/AP) — Republican Sen. Pat Roberts used the first debate in his unexpectedly competitive reelection campaign Saturday to try to brand his independent challenger as a liberal Democrat, mocking him for refusing to identify with either major party.
Challenger Greg Orman got in his digs, too, during the event at the Kansas State Fair, poking fun of Roberts for repeatedly invoking Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's name in answers and saying, "What I haven't heard from you is, 'Solve problems.'"
The debate capped a wild week in which the Democratic candidate withdrew, apparently bolstering Orman's chances in November, and in which Roberts overhauled his struggling campaign by replacing its manager and bringing in two national GOP operatives. What was once expected to be an easy victory for the GOP as it seeks to gain control of the Senate is now viewed as a competitive race.
Roberts, 78, is seeking a fourth Senate term. Orman, a 45-year-old businessman from the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, has never held an elected office. He ran as a Democrat for Roberts' seat the last time it was up for grabs but dropped out well before the primary.
In front of a crowd of about 2,000 people at an open-air fairgrounds arena, Roberts played up his experience and said he's the only candidate who can be trusted to fight Reid and Democratic President Barack Obama. He invoked Reid's name so often that many in the crowd started booing, jeering and hooting whenever he did.
While Roberts repeatedly suggested that Orman would help Reid and the Democrats once he got to Washington, he concluded by criticizing Orman for saying he would caucus with whatever party wins a majority.
"Kansas needs someone in Washington with convictions and a backbone. I don't think my opponent has either," Roberts said in closing. "First he says he's a Republican. Then he says he's a Democrat. Just this year, he becomes an independent. Ladies and gentlemen, what will Greg Orman be next week?"
Orman, who has been unaffiliated since 2010 but who had previously registered as both a Democrat and Republican, said after the debate that he has problems with the leaders of each party. He said he's a centrist who grew disappointed in both of them.
"Our system of government is broken, and we all know it," Orman said. "I've tried both parties, and like most Kansans, I've been disappointed."