Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jari Askins came out swinging in a debate Tuesday evening against her Republican opponent Mary Fallin.
Askins, who is trailing in polls, used her opening remarks to criticize claims by Fallin supporters that Askins is "too liberal" for Oklahoma.
"I want to make this clear: I am an Oklahoma Democrat. Oklahoma Democrats are conservative. We are not extreme," Askins said.
"Don't buy off on this vicious rhetoric that comes from Washington."
Askins was speaking specifically about advertising by the Republican Governor's Association that paints her as a liberal who supports the policies of President Barack Obama.
Askins said for more than a year she has publicly opposed health care reform and cap and trade policies of the Obama administration. She accused the governor's association and Fallin of distorting her record and branded Fallin as part of an "out-of-sync, out-of-touch" establishment in Washington.
Fallin, meanwhile, stuck mostly to the issues during the debate. She called Askins "a good friend" in her closing remarks but earlier drew groans from the audience by saying one of the main differences between she and Askins is that she is a mother who has raised children.
Askins, 57, the current lieutenant governor and a former state representative, has never married nor had children. Fallin, 55, a first-term congresswoman and former lieutenant governor, has children from her first marriage.
The debate was at the University of Central Oklahoma and moderated by television anchorwoman Linda Cavanaugh. Four journalists who cover the state Capitol were panelists.
The next debate is Oct. 28 on the Oklahoma State University campus in Tulsa.
Several questions dealt with state budget issues. Next year's state budget shortfall may approach a billion dollars by some estimates.
Neither candidate would specifically say which state services they might consider cutting to save money.
Fallin said she'll order a comprehensive review of all state agencies to see whether they're efficient or even needed. She said Oklahoma has more than 500 agencies, boards and commissions, compared with about one-fifth as many in Kansas.
"As governor, I'm going to look at the agencies themselves to look at making them smaller and more efficient," Fallin said.
Fallin also said she would explore options to form partnerships with private companies to provide state services. She touted work she did as lieutenant governor to help the Tourism Department privatize some of its services as a model to follow.
Askins said the long-term solution to budget problems is to have the Legislature focus on nothing but budget issues every other legislative session.
"I think we will make smarter decisions, legislators will be better informed and they will be able to return to their districts and explain to you, the taxpayers, how we spend your money," Askins said.
Askins said in the short term she'll consider cost-cutting options that don't balance the budget "on the backs of" children, seniors and others who are vulnerable.
Budget woes have plagued a state prison system already struggling with overcrowding and nation-leading incarceration rates.
Both candidates expressed willingness to explore alternative sentencing methods to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.
Askins, who touted her experience on the pardon and parole board as well as corrections-related legislation she wrote as a state representative, said it will be expensive to reform the corrections system in Oklahoma. She pledged to lay out a year-by-year plan early in her term to fix corrections problems such as overcrowding and sentencing discrepancies.
Fallin said some alternative sentencing programs should be specifically tailored to people facing addiction problems. She also said removing the governor from the pardon and parole process for nonviolent offenders might make the process more efficient and save money.
Both labeled a plan proposed by Gov. Brad Henry to use highway traffic cameras to take pictures of license plates so people without car insurance can be fined as intrusive.
The highway traffic camera plan was proposed as a way to make money but has been widely criticized.
Fallin said the best way to raise money for the state is to create a good business climate, and Askins said many Americans already feel the government is too invasive in their lives.
Fallin said she supports making the Legislature follow state open records and open meetings laws; legislators are currently exempt from the laws.
Askins said some legislative records, such as constituent communications, should be kept secret. She said other records showing how the Legislature spends its money should be open records.
Both were noncommittal on whether insurance companies should be required to provide insurance to autistic children.
In her closing remarks, Fallin struck an optimistic tone and said: "I believe we can make Oklahoma the go-to place to run a business and raise a family."
Askins criticized Fallin again in her closing remarks, saying Fallin apparently "didn't listen" when Askins stated her position on federal policies such as health care reform that Fallin supporters have tried to paint Askins as supporting.
She said the next governor needs strong critical thinking, analysis, communication, negotiation and bipartisanship skills.
"I'm asking for a job that requires more than a warm smile and a friendly hug," Askins said.