Democrat Andrew Rice on Tuesday sought to portray his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, as tied to the economic policies of the Bush administration, and challenged any voters who think they are better off than they were eight years ago to re-elect Inhofe.


Democrat Andrew Rice on Tuesday sought to portray his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, as tied to the economic policies of the Bush administration, and challenged any voters who think they are better off than they were eight years ago to re-elect Inhofe.

Inhofe, Oklahoma's senior senator, branded Rice a "proud liberal" and said this race had probably "the greatest philosophic diversity of any" in the country.

"George Bush got everything he wanted when he got elected in 2000," Rice, a first-term state senator from Oklahoma City, said in the debate. "There was no checks and balances from the Republican Congress and Sen. Inhofe."

Inhofe, who cited several sources that called him the "most conservative" senator, said, "I would commend you, Andrew, because you are an activist. You have the guts to be a committed activist, even if you are wrong."

The 45-minute debate aired on television station KJRH and marked the first meeting between the candidates less than a month before the general election.

During the debate, the candidates were separated by only a few feet, stationed behind wooden podiums each draped with an American flag. The small audience in the studio was selected by the League of Women Voters.

Questions in the debate came from a three-person panel of journalists, as well as from more than 200 submitted to the TV station, among others.

Many dealt with the country's current economic crisis, which required a multibillion-dollar bailout package passed last week by Congress.

Other issues included funding for the military, illegal immigration and global warming.

On the bailout, Rice accused Inhofe of taking a wait-and-see approach as the package came together and said Inhofe showed a lack of leadership. Rice said he wouldn't have voted for the bailout because it lacked accountability, didn't have enough taxpayer protections and contained nothing to keep the crisis from happening again.

Inhofe, who voted against the bailout, said he wanted to wait to see what specifics the package contained, and said his issues with the bill dealt with who would control doling out the money. He said Oklahoma bankers might be left holding the bag even though they were not part of the problem.

Asked whether the lives of average Oklahomans were better or worse off than they were six years ago when he stood for re-election, Inhofe said that compared to other states' economic indicators, such as unemployment rates, the state has "done very well."

"If you'd asked me this question six months ago, I'd say 'yes,'" Inhofe said. "But now we're in this slump and this is a problem that we have to deal with."

But Rice said that those at the "very high income levels," such as big businesses and oil companies, have benefited from Bush's economic policies, and that there were "a lot of Oklahomans who are struggling."

"The middle class in Oklahoma has become invisible to people in Washington who are inside the Beltway and working on all these extreme economic policies that have tanked our economy."

Before Tuesday, Rice and Inhofe had largely traded barbs in television ads.

Rice has claimed that Inhofe's been in Washington too long and has a record of blocking legislation that would promote alternative energy sources to ease dependence on foreign oil.

Inhofe contends Rice is too liberal for Oklahoma voters and has billed himself as a "stubborn" advocate for the state's interests.

Last week, Rice accused Inhofe of shunning debates while running a "negative stream of advertising" on television in an attempt to distort his record as a state senator.

According to recent public opinion polls, Rice is trailing Inhofe by 16 to 22 percentage points. He also is being outspent more than 2-1.

Besides Tuesday's debate, the candidates are scheduled to appear in Tulsa on Oct. 14 before The State Chamber.

But they will not debate — each will address the crowd separately. Independent Stephen P. Wallace also has been invited to make a presentation.

At one point, the business group closed that meeting to the press at the request of the Inhofe campaign, but officials backed off that plan after media complaints.

Outside the TV station, a crowd of about 100 Rice and Inhofe supporters gathered along the street.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.