At times Thursday, it appeared as if Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg was running against U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock instead of his actual rival, Mike Pence.
Gregg weaved Mourdock, a tea-party hero, plenty of times into his final direct appeal to a statewide audience Thursday, asking for support from moderate voters while assailing Pence repeatedly for his own record and past stances on social issues.
Gregg and Pence – along with Libertarian candidate Rupert Boneham – met in Fort Wayne for an hour-long televised debate that often grew testy between the major-party contenders.
“I'd like to ask you once again to look beyond those party labels,” Gregg said in his closing statements, repeating a frequent plea. “There's no place in Indiana for the tea party and that extremism.”
For the past two days, Gregg has leveled almost constant attacks at Pence for his own ties to the conservative tea party movement, linking him to a controversy that erupted after Mourdock's remarks on rape and abortion in a Senate debate Tuesday.
Thursday's gubernatorial debate came as Gregg's campaign appeared to be gaining ground on Pence after trailing by double digits for most of the campaign. Gregg's campaign released an internal poll Thursday that shows him trailing Pence by 6 percentage points, down from 18 points just weeks ago.
Gregg has run an aggressive race against the Republican front runner, hitting hard on the campaign trail and in each of the three debates, while Pence has stayed largely silent on Gregg's attacks – apparently content to sit on his comfortable polling advantage.
Gregg lobbed more attacks at his opponent Thursday, but Pence, a Congressman who has represented Indiana's 6th District for more than a decade, fought back with more vigor than in the previous debates.
“You've thrown a lot of definitions my way. One of them is career politician,” Pence said, noting that Gregg served longer in the Indiana House than Pence has in Congress.
The debate's biggest skirmishes came when the Gregg and Pence clashed on their respective fiscal policy records and positions on the roughly $25 billion taxpayer-funded bailout of the U.S. auto industry.
But, as expected, Gregg also blasted Pence for perceived inconsistencies on abortion – an attack Gregg has renewed since Mourdock's remarks. In the Senate debate, Mourdock said that when a rape victim becomes pregnant, it's “something God intended.”
“I brought up how Congressman Pence has changed his position on abortion, and he didn't deny it,” Gregg said in a post-debate news conference. “Once his tea-party twin Richard Mourdock got in hot water, he distanced himself.”
Pence, who is known as staunchly pro-life, was among fellow Republicans who called on Mourdock to apologize. In a news conference after the debate, Pence said he supports exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest and when the mother's life is at risk.
During the debate, Pence mostly ignored Gregg's attacks on social issues but took his own shots when the discussion turned to fiscal policy, hitting his opponent for leaving the state in a deep financial hole after his six years as Indiana House speaker.
“When you were speaker of the house, for five of the six years you were speaker, the state ran budget deficits,” Pence said. “We've got to have honestly balanced budgets going forward.”
Gregg fired back, using the tense exchange as another chance to attack Pence for his record in Congress.
“I find it ironic that a United States Congressman would lecture anybody on fiscal responsibility,” Gregg said, noting that Congress has never passed a balanced budget during Pence's 12-year tenure.
He later blasted Pence for his opposition to the auto bailout – without which, Gregg said, as many as 120,000 Hoosier jobs could have been at risk.
Pence responded that he fought against the bailout on principle – noting that he also stood up to President George W. Bush on the Wall Street bailout – but would have supported a structured bankruptcy for General Motors.
“We could have saved those companies without putting taxpayers on the hook,” Pence said.
As usual, Pence spent much of the debate listing broad economic and education proposals from his “Roadmap for Indiana” plan.
The poll released by Gregg's campaign shows him trailing 46-40 with less than two weeks until the Nov. 6 election. The poll, conducted by Beneson Strategy Group between Oct. 18-21, included 701 likely voters and has a margin for error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points for each candidate.