CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The four candidates vying to fill Robert Byrd's unexpired U.S. Senate term met and debated Monday for the first and perhaps only time before the Nov. 2 election.
The two leading candidates, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican industrialist John Raese, covered mostly old ground, though they sought to reinforce their message in the only televised debate of the cycle.
The debate -- sponsored by The Associated Press and West Virginia University's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism and televised on C-SPAN and state public broadcasting -- also provided most state voters with a rare peek at Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson and Constitution Party candidate Jeff Becker.
Manchin, a conservative Democrat, used one question to emphasize his Democratic bona fides, saying he supports Medicare, Social Security and other government-sponsored safety nets.
"Every time this country has hit the bottom, it's the Democrats who have stood up and helped people," Manchin said.
Raese, in turn, said the Obama administration and Democrats had perverted the free market with, among other things, a "socialist" health care reform law.
Raese, who supports a repeal of the minimum wage, said doing so would unleash the free market and, in turn, raise wages. He said "Obama and Manchin," "like people working for $7.25" an hour.
"We're always going to be mired in 'How low can we go?' " he said, if Democrats remain in charge.
Johnson, the Mountain Party candidate, suggested neither Republicans nor Democrats were addressing major issues. He accused the panel moderating the debate of not giving him enough time to address the "outrageous" statements from both Manchin and Raese.
"I ask the public when I am campaigning, 'Are you sick enough yet? Are you sick enough yet?' " Johnson said. "If not now, when?"
Becker, whose party endorses a return to the "original intent of the Founding Fathers," said senators need to be more responsive to states. He appears to favor repealing the 17th Amendment, which allowed the popular vote of senators. Originally, state legislators selected senators.
Becker said senators need to work better with state lawmakers.
Raese attacked government earmarks.
"What it does really is creates what are called 'career politicians,' " he said of the system of lawmakers setting aside money for pet projects.
Manchin defended the practice, so long as it was "transparent." He pointed to the infrastructure projects backed by President Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal and by President Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration began work on the national highway system.
Manchin deemphasized his opposition to health care reform, which he has said should be scraped if it could not be "fixed."
"It just doesn't work that way, and the bottom line is there are things people depend on," Manchin said of repeal. But he left himself room for scrapping the whole thing if consensus couldn't be reached on fixing it.