INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana's lone statewide Democrat, was propelled into office six years ago after his opponent's incendiary comments about abortion and rape during a disastrous debate appearance tanked his candidacy.
On a similar stage Tuesday night, Donnelly's Republican challenger Mike Braun appeared determined to avoid the same fate, despite a full-throated attack from the Democrat, who tried to force the issue.
"If your daughter happens to be raped, Mike thinks the government has a role in the middle of that — I don't," Donnelly said during the debate.
The politics of abortion are complicated in Indiana, a state so dominated by Republicans that policy fights over the issue are typically waged by differing factions within the party. In an election that could hinge on support from independents and moderate Republican women, it could also prove to be a volatile electoral issue.
Both candidates say they oppose abortion, though Donnelly has highlighted how he believes exceptions should be made in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's health could be at stake.
But despite Donnelly's best effort to make Braun sound like his 2012 opponent Richard Mourdock — who said a woman who gets pregnant from her rapist is carrying a "gift from God" — Braun avoided a similar gaffe.
"The senator tries to have it both ways. When it comes to the sanctity of life, you cannot say you are pro-life and have your voting record," he said of Donnelly, adding that he "would never demonize anyone who disagrees with my point of view."
Braun skipped the traditional post-debate news conference, but on stage he did not dispute Donnelly's charge that he opposes abortion no matter what.
"I wasn't trying to trick him. His position is clear," Donnelly said after the debate. "I thought that Richard Mourdock was extreme, but he's nothing compared to Mike Braun. Even Richard Mourdock believed in an exception for the life of the mother."
The appearance was the final of two debates that were held in the contest. Libertarian Lucy Brenton also appeared on stage.
With just one week until the election, both Donnelly and Braun are locked in a tight race. While it appears unlikely that Democrats will be able to take the chamber, the contest will help determine the balance of power in the Senate.
In addition to abortion, Braun and Donnelly attacked each other over health care.
After years of Democrats running away from what had been a toxic issue at the polls, Donnelly boasts that he cast the "deciding vote" to save Obama's signature health care law — the same wording the GOP formerly used in attack ads.
He has gone after Braun for supporting a Republican-led lawsuit aimed at eliminating the law, including coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
Braun says that while he is for repealing the Affordable Care Act, he wouldn't vote to do so unless there was a replacement that protected those with pre-existing conditions.
He also touted his own auto parts distribution company's health care plan, which offers low premiums even though the deductible for care is between $5,000 and $10,000.
It's an effort to highlight his business experience, which he says makes the difference between him and "career politicians" like Donnelly.
"I've done things in the real world," Braun said. "That's the difference between me and the senator."
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