WASHINGTON -- The Indiana Senate candidates battled to seize the center in their first debate, with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly suggesting Hoosiers won't buy the moderate makeover of Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, because they're "not that dumb."
Mourdock, Donnelly and Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning all tried to cast themselves as the sensible choice, with Mourdock and Donnelly both often saying they work well with others, and Horning saying both parties are broken.
It was a tougher sell for Mourdock -- who beat Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary, promising not to compromise -- and some sparks flew when Mourdock took issue with Donnelly's characterization of him as a tea party extremist who doesn't think Social Security or Medicare are constitutional.
"Mr. Donnelly has tried to make the point, tried to attack me, because I was once asked if in fact the Constitution included the words Social Security and Medicare, and clearly it does not," Mourdock said. "I gave that answer, and he runs that in a news clip, or a commercial, to make it sound like I believe the idea of Social Security is unconstitutional. And Joe, you know I have never said that."
While the debate was mostly mild by modern standards, Mourdock's charge brought a sharp response from Donnelly.
"I may have been born at night, but I was not born last night," Donnelly declared. "When you meet with the Madison Tea Party and you say to them, you show me where in the Constitution it allows Medicare, and you show me where in the Constitution it allows Social Security, we're not that dumb. We know what you are implying, and we know what you are driving at. You also said Medicare should be turned into a voucher system."
Donnelly was referring to speech Mourdock gave in April, 2011, in which he elaborated at length on how the two safety net programs were not hinted at in the Constitution.
Sixty percent of our budget, sixty percent of our budget this year, will be for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. I challenge you in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution where those so-called enumerated powers are listed. I challenge you to find words that talk about Medicare or Medicaid or, yes, even Social Security. You know, Article I, Section 8 says the U.S. government shall have the power to tax to pay off its debts, to pay for its defense, and then it says to provide for the general welfare. The next sixteen or seventeen little sentences all start with that two word preposition ‘to’ because those little sentences that start with ‘to’ are defining the general welfare. It says things like, you can raise taxes to build post offices, to provide post roads, to provide a navy. All these different sentences. Nowhere is the word ‘entitlement’ present in the enumerated powers.
In the debate, Mourdock suggested agencies such as the FBI and NASA were also not in the Constitution, but were permissible under his view of government.
With Mourdock and Donnelly both staking out turf in the middle, Horning may have posed an unexpected threat from Mourdock's right, contending that he found Mourdock's new interpretation of the Constitution troubling.
"Mr. Mourdock, your answer was one of those things that makes me blanch when people say you are a constitutionalist," Horning said. "If it is not in the Constitution, if it is not authorized specifically by the Constitution, it is prohibited by the Constitution."
Constitutional scholars might beg to differ, but such a line likely will ring true with the type of audience Mourdock has appealed to in the past.
Horning also hammered away at the idea that Mourdock would be any better than Donnelly at cutting the size of government.
"There is zero opportunity for Republicans to say they have any history or experience in cutting the cost of government," Horning said, describe both of the main party candidates as "cogs" in the machine.
The other main flashpoint was over Mourdock's legal challenge to the Obama administration's bailout of Chrysler, which cost some $2 million -- more than the state stood to lose under the deal.
"In regards to Chrysler, I am proud to have stood with Sen. [Richard] Lugar to have saved over 100,000 auto jobs," Donnelly said. "Mr. Mourdock sued to try to force the liquidation of Chrysler."
But Mourdock insisted it was a matter of principle. "I stood up for the rule of law," Mourdoch said. "If the government can change the law on a whim, when they determine there to be a crisis, that is not a good thing. When they say one group of Americans is better than another, and pick a winner and loser, we no longer have equal justice under law."
The candidates will square off again next Tuesday, Oct. 23.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.