BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DAYTON, Ohio -- The tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface of Ohio's U.S. Senate race bubbled over Thursday night when Republican George Voinovich and Democrat Mary Boyle met here in their first and only debate.
In a Dayton public television studio, the candidates went head-to-head for an hour, with questions coming from an audience of about 75 Dayton-area residents chosen by the debate sponsors.
"Why is it, governor, that after failing to keep your promise to be the education governor, you wanted to be rewarded by the voters of Ohio with a U.S. Senate seat?" asked Ms. Boyle, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner who is running an underdog campaign against Ohio's two-term governor.
Mr. Voinovich visibly bristled at the question from Ms. Boyle, saying that he has been "governor of this state for eight years, and I'll let the people of Ohio judge my performance when it comes to education."
Criticizing Mr. Voinovich's record as governor is a familiar approach for Ms. Boyle, who, since the beginning of the campaign has trailed in the polls, in fund raising and in name recognition. But this was the first and probably only time when she will get a chance to make her case before a statewide television audience. Thursday night's debate, sponsored by the Dayton Daily News and WPTD public television, is the only one scheduled in the U.S. Senate race, although Ms. Boyle has repeatedly called for debates in all of Ohio's eight largest cities.
The audience posed questions on subjects ranging from Social Security to campaign finance reform to the role of government in people's lives. But Ms. Boyle took nearly every opportunity to bring the subject back to education.
"Governor Voinovich pledged that he would be the education governor," Ms. Boyle said. "There are fewer dollars available for public education percentagewise than there was in 1990." Mr. Voinovich said that since becoming governor in 1991, he has increased funding for public education by $600 million. He pointed a barb at Ms. Boyle over the pending Ohio Supreme Court order that requires Ohio to come up with a new system of funding public schools that is less reliant on property taxes.
"That Supreme Court case wasn't about anything that happened on my watch as governor; it was about what happened on my opponent's watch when she was in the legislature," Mr. Voinovich said.
His Democratic opponent was a member of the Democratic-controlled Ohio General Assembly in the early 1980s.
Mr. Voinovich has raised more than $5 million for his campaign, while Ms. Boyle has raised about $2 million. As of Sept. 30, the Boyle campaign had less than $200,000 in the bank, while the Voinovich campaign still had $2.5 million.
That disparity in funding led Ms. Boyle in the debate to charge Mr. Voinovich with ignoring her request for a voluntary campaign spending limit of $2 million.
But Mr. Voinovich told reporters after the debate he never had such a request. "I didn't know what she was talking about; I don't remember them suggesting anything like that," he said.
During the debate, Mr. Voinovich criticized Ms. Boyle for an Ohio Democratic Party TV ad campaign that hammers at his education record. The TV ad does not advocate the election or defeat of either candidate, but it is considered to be a big boost for the Boyle campaign.
"What I'd like to ask her to disclose is the Ohio Democratic Party ads that lie about my record," Mr. Voinovich said. "You say you are against soft money, but your campaign benefits from it."
Ms. Boyle said her campaign had nothing to do with the ads and said that, if elected to the Senate, she would vote to end the use of "soft money" -- money raised by parties and independent groups that is not covered by federal campaign contribution limits.
The two candidates also sparred over the record of the Voinovich administration on environmental issues.
"In the past seven years, we have witnessed a decline in the quality of our air and water in Ohio," Ms. Boyle said. She also charged that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in the Voinovich administration has been "unresponsive" to environmental concerns in Ohio communities.
Mr. Voinovich said that his administration has managed to create 504,000 new jobs and "at the same time protect the environment. The water and air in Ohio are cleaner now than they were 25 years ago."
After the debate, Mr. Voinovich told reporters that there is no chance of more debates with Ms. Boyle before the Nov. 3 election.
"People in Ohio know me; they know my good things and they know my warts," Mr. Voinovich said. "I don't think four or five more of these are going to make any difference."