MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Gov. Scott Walker argued during a debate Friday that he turned around Wisconsin's economy, leading to more jobs and money in people's pockets, while Democratic opponent Mary Burke countered that Walker divided the state, didn't live up to his promises and is beholden to special interests, not the average voter.
Both candidates scored political points, but neither broke much new ground in the hourlong debate broadcast nationwide from Eau Claire, the first of two before the Nov. 4 election. For many voters, it was their first opportunity to hear from Burke outside of a campaign ad. She's in the midst of her first statewide campaign, while Walker is on the ballot for the third time in four years, having won a recall election in 2012.
The race has drawn national attention both because it's close and because Walker is widely considered to be in the mix for a 2016 presidential run should he win re-election. The latest Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed Walker with a slight edge, up 5 percentage points with a 4.1-point margin of error.
Burke, a former state Commerce Department secretary and executive at Trek Bicycles, is a member of the Madison school board. She held her own against the more experienced Walker and avoided making any major gaffes.
The only time she stumbled in not quickly coming up with an answer was when she responded to a question asking for something positive about Walker. Ultimately, Burke said she admired his focus on helping victims of domestic abuse and his charitable work.
Walker, a veteran of high-pressure debates over his political career that began when he was first elected to the state Assembly in 1993, was unflappable while defending himself from a string of attacks by Burke on his record on women's issues, the economy, tax cuts and the environment.
In arguing for a second term, Walker hearkened back to his first campaign when he portrayed himself as an average guy who drives a Saturn and eats the same lunch out of a brown bag most days.
But Burke argued it is time for a change and said she would fight for the average person, who she said has been left behind in Walker's Wisconsin.
She cited Walker's easing of environmental regulations to help an out-of-state company open an iron ore mine near Lake Superior. Burke noted that while Walker was pushing for the mine the company, Gogebic Taconite, made a $700,000 donation to a conservative group helping the governor.
"Gov. Walker's tone and approach, in his own words, is to 'divide and conquer,'" Burke said, referring to a comment Walker made to a donor when describing his plans for curbing public sector union rights.
Walker faced the recall after signing the collective bargaining law, and became the first governor in U.S. history to survive such an effort.
Burke also said Wisconsin has failed to keep pace with the growing national economy. In her opening statement, she slammed Walker for failing to deliver on his signature 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 private-sector jobs.
"I know we can do better, a lot better," Burke said.
Walker said the 100,000 jobs that have been created are significant, given that the state lost 133,000 jobs in the years before he took office as the recession took hold.
"I think we want to keep going forward with things that work," Walker said. "We don't want to go backward with the things that got us in trouble before."
Walker mentioned former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle four times during the debate. Burke served under Doyle for nearly three years.
A panel of broadcast journalists questioned the candidates, who stood close to one another behind podiums.
Burke was not asked about sections of her signature jobs plan that included sections copied from other Democratic candidates, which led to charges of plagiarism from Walker.
And Walker was not asked about the investigation into alleged illegal coordination between his 2012 recall campaign and more than two dozen conservative groups. No one has been charged and the probe is on hold while numerous lawsuits work their way through the courts.
Burke and Walker meet one more time, on Oct. 17, for a debate in Milwaukee.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP