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GOP Senate contenders in Ohio face off for their first statewide debate

CLEVELAND (AP) — The three Republicans vying to take on Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown this fall in Ohio’s competitive U.S. Senate race clashed bitterly in their first statewide debate Monday, lobbing personal attacks and accusing each other of shifting political positions aimed at wooing GOP primary voters.

Facing off at WJW Fox 8 Studios in Cleveland, businessman Bernie Moreno, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan generally agreed on a few issues. All three, for example, supported some form of federal limit on abortion access, citing pro-abortion amendments like the one Ohioans approved last fall as too extreme. They declined to say anything critical of former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Moreno, and called for fully securing the southern U.S. border.

They split quickly on the latter topic, though, with Dolan accusing Moreno of wanting “to militarize the federal government and deport children” for his stance calling for deporting anybody in the country illegally. LaRose called earlier Monday for Democratic President Joe Biden to deploy three military divisions to the border, which Dolan said was irresponsible.

“We need to work with the Mexican government, we need to be tough with the Mexican government,” he said.

LaRose, who noted he would be the first Green Beret elected to the Senate, defended his support for a strong military strategy and deporting anybody who has come to the country during the Biden presidency. “We don’t want to secure the border because we hate the people on the other side,” he said. “We want to secure the border because we love our country.”

Moreno called LaRose “slick” for couching his support for deportation. Moreno emphasized that he is a “political outsider” — like Trump — running against two “career politicians.” He told moderators Colleen Marshall and Joe Toohey that even a criminal conviction of Trump, who faces four separate indictments, wouldn’t cause him to reject the former president’s endorsement.

Both Moreno and LaRose described the Trump lawsuits as politically motivated and said there’s a two-tiered justice system in the U.S. that targets Biden’s political enemies. The debate moderators noted that Moreno originally tweeted that Jan. 6 demonstrators were “morons” and “criminals,” then later joined those who describe them as “political prisoners.”

Moreno said there were two distinct groups of people in question, while Dolan called that an attempt by Moreno to “reinvent himself.” He also took aim at Moreno for shredding documents as he faced wage theft lawsuits in Massachusetts.

“Public service is about trust, making sure that you’re going to follow through with what you do,” he said, also accusing LaRose of originally saying Ohio’s elections were secure but later, while trying to woo Trump’s endorsement, saying that they had problems.

Moreno, pointing to Dolan, replied: “If you want Liz Cheney to represent you in the United States Senate from Ohio, here’s your choice, because that’s where his position comes from. The reality is it’s sad to see you repeating left-wing liberal talking points.” Cheney, a Republican former House member from Wyoming, has been deeply critical of Trump.

Democrats said the debate showed none of the Republican candidates would “fight for anybody but themselves.”

“In between every barb and insult lobbed at tonight’s debate, Bernie Moreno, Frank LaRose, and Matt Dolan made it clear that they have no interest in fighting for Ohioans or the issues most important to their daily lives,” Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson Katie Smith said in a statement.

LaRose sought to position himself as the middle-class candidate in a fight against two wealthy opponents. Moreno is a millionaire who made his money building a high-end Cleveland car dealership and Dolan’s family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team; both have provided millions in loans to their own campaigns.

“I live in the real economy, just like everyday Ohioans do,” LaRose said. “I’m not sure that my opponents here sit at the kitchen table and figure out how they’re going to pay their bills the way most Ohioans do. I understand that it’s because of the bad policies of Biden and Brown that Ohio families are suffering.”

On abortion, all three candidates said they see a role for the federal government in setting a limit — generally around 15 weeks. Dolan was the only one who mentioned supporting exceptions after that point. They said Ohio’s Issue 1, which passed in November with 57% of the vote, was too extreme. Dolan repeated the misleading claim that it would allow the return of “late-term abortions,” while advocating that Republicans work toward a federal compromise.

“We haven’t listened. We haven’t listened,” he said.

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press

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