LEXINGTON, Ky. (TheBlaze/AP) -- In a debate at close quarters, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes pledged Monday night she would be independent of President Barack Obama if she wins Kentucky's close and costly Senate race, but Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his rival has consistently tried to deceive Kentucky voters about her intentions.
Side by side for the only time in their race, Grimes offered several possible labels for McConnell - "Senator no-show, Senator gridlock and Senator shutdown."
McConnell countered that as Senate Republican leader, he has been involved in the major bipartisan deals that have been reached in the past four years of divided government.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) Ky., right, and Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, before their appearance on "Kentucky Tonight" television broadcast live from KET studios in Lexington, Ky., Monday, on Oct. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/The Lexington Herald-Leader, Pablo Alcala, Pool)
He also said that despite her attempts to establish her political independence from the president, Grimes was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2012, when some Democratic office-holders stayed away. "She's made a major effort to deceive the people of Kentucky," he said.
The two also disagreed sharply about coal, trade and other issues during the hour-long debate on KET, Kentucky's public television station.
The encounter coincided with a campaign stretch in which Grimes has repeatedly declined to say if she voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, a subject that seemed all-but-certain to come up.
Once again, Grimes refused to say whether she voted for President Obama in 2008 or 2012.
"I'm not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side -- or for members of the media," she said, citing "privacy at the ballot box."
The president is highly unpopular in the state, and Grimes has spent months and millions in advertising money trying to establish her political independence from him.
McConnell, whose own poll ratings are poor after 30 years in office, has worked nonstop to cast his rival as a certain ally of the administration if she captures the Senate seat.
The race is one of several that will determine whether Republicans capture a Senate majority in midterm elections. They need to pick up six seats to prevail, and a GOP triumph would all-but-certainly make McConnell the new majority leader, with the power to set the Senate's legislative agenda during the last two years of Obama's presidency.
The race is one of the most expensive in the country, with millions of dollars in television commercials aired by the candidates, their parties and allies focused on Senate races nationally. McConnell also has benefited from about $20 million in advertisements from a pair of organizations set up by former aides and associates solely to re-elect him to a sixth term.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to supporters Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, during Rand Paul's Barnburner & BBQ in Bowling Green, Ky. (AP Photo/Daily News, Bac To Trong)
Both candidates unveiled new television ads in the hours before the debate, each one designed to underscore a central claim of their campaign.
Grimes' commercial featured retired Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford, who said McConnell "is Mr. No," and said that unlike the incumbent, the challenger won't vote to send jobs overseas.
McConnell's ad showed Chuck Todd, an NBC newsman who moderates Meet The Press, saying earlier in the week, "I think she (Grimes) disqualified herself" by not saying who she voted for.
Grimes, 35, was recruited by the Democratic party nationally to run, and got off to a fast start while McConnell, 72, was bogged down in a costly primary race with tea party rival Matt Bevin.
Grimes and McConnell both won their primaries with ease in mid-May, at a time the Democratic challenger was ahead in most if not all of the public polls. She soon came under a withering barrage of televised attacks, though. In recent weeks, her favorability has eroded in public surveys, many of which show McConnell with a slender advantage in a very tight race.
The debate was televised live by KET, Kentucky's statewide public television network. The sponsors did not allow still photographers or reporters into the studio during the event, preventing them from capturing the full context of how the candidates performed outside the view of KET's cameras.