BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Embattled Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu largely dumped her message of seniority and clout Monday in favor of direct attacks against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, as she sought to use the last Senate race debate to overcome her long odds to winning a fourth term.
Landrieu accused the GOP congressman of bilking taxpayers in his medical teaching work at the LSU hospital system, suggesting Cassidy collected a $20,000, taxpayer-funded annual salary for little or no work.
"If he gets elected, which I doubt, he will be fighting subpoenas, because this is going to be under investigation," she said.
Cassidy, a liver specialist, said he did nothing wrong and shot back with renewed criticism for Landrieu's improper billing of charter flights to taxpayers when she was attending campaign events, $43,000 in charter costs that have been reimbursed by Landrieu's campaign.
"I truly have been trying to help the uninsured and the poor for the last 25 years," Cassidy said of his medical work. Of Landrieu, he said: "When she takes chartered jets on the taxpayer dime to campaign events, who is it that benefits?"
The event was the only debate in advance of Saturday's runoff election. Cassidy refused additional debates, as he holds the lead in the race and seeks to avoid any possible missteps in an unscripted event.
Landrieu is the last Democratic statewide elected official standing in a state trending more Republican each election cycle. National Democrats have largely abandoned her in campaign advertising, leaving her to fend for herself while national Republican and conservative organizations continue to slam her and support Cassidy on the airwaves.
Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, even if Landrieu wins.
The Democratic incumbent from New Orleans needs strong turnout from black voters and improved support from white voters to turn the tide in her favor. But if early voting is a strong indication, black voter interest in the race has dropped.
More white and Republican voters cast ballots early for the runoff election than in advance of the Nov. 4 primary, when Landrieu ended up with only 42 percent support.
Thirty-two percent of the voters who cast ballots early in November were black. But in the latest weeklong early voting period, only 28 percent of the voters were black, though they make up 31 percent of the state's registered voters.
In Monday night's statewide TV debate, Cassidy stuck to his message of tying Landrieu to President Barack Obama, who remains unpopular in Louisiana. Cassidy said the Democratic senator's support for Obama's agenda and appointees was damaging to the state.
"Families are struggling, and they're struggling because of the Landrieu/Obama agenda," he said.
Landrieu repeatedly circled back to her criticism of Cassidy's LSU work. She described gaps in Cassidy's timesheets and questionable billings, calling it a "sweetheart deal."
Cassidy worked a little more than five years for LSU after being elected to Congress and before taking a leave of absence for the campaign. The university has provided only 16 timesheets for the period, and they show him working fewer than 14 hours per month on average. Landrieu also questioned how Cassidy could be doing medical work on days when he also took votes in Congress or attended committee hearings in Washington.
LSU hasn't provided Cassidy's contract or any information about how many hours he was required to work. University spokesman Ernie Ballard issued a statement saying: "Based on concerns that have surfaced in the news media, we will review any information we have regarding Dr. Bill Cassidy's employment with LSU, just as we would any other employee."
Both candidates used talk of the timesheet criticism to discuss Obama's signature health care revamp.
Cassidy said while he was doing medical work for the poor and uninsured, Landrieu was supporting a federal health overhaul that worsened care, damaged businesses and needed to be repealed.
Landrieu replied by saying her Republican challenger claimed to be a doctor for the poor, but wanted to strip a law that helps the poor gain greater access to health care.
"This law is not perfect. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be improved. But it is better than the system we had," she said.