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NASHVILLE — Small wonder that Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen slugged it out on stage for 60 minutes Tuesday night during the first debate in their U.S. Senate race.

From the get go, Blackburn, a Brentwood congressman, and former Gov. Bredesen couldn't even agree on the answer to the first question posed to them by moderators at the Cumberland University dust up. That was, what is the single most pressing issue for Tennesseans in the Nov. 6 election?

"The No. 1 thing that they talk about is making certain we keep the jobs and the economy growing as it is," said Blackburn, a Brentwood congress member, who quickly hailed the GOP-run Congress' 2017 tax overhaul.

"Tax cuts are working," she continued. "And we hear story after story from people about about how very important it is. Now, I know Phil said he would have voted against the tax cuts — he called them 'crumbs' — but I got to tell you, when you're out and about in our communities and you see the economic growth and development. This is what they're talking about."

Bredesen, a former governor and Nashville mayor, said the most pressing issue for Tennesseans "has got to be the overarching issue of how dysfunctional Washington has become. So many issues that affect Tennesseans, economically and in every other way are stalled in many ways because of the lack of ability for Washington to engage in issues.

"It's become hyperpartisan," he added. "It's become almost impossible to get things done and move forward. You know, relative to that, is this idea that somehow your party affiliation, whether you're Democrat or Republican, ought to determine everything about how you think about things and approach things."

How many times can you say it?

Seeking to strike a blow at Bredesen's assurances to voters that he will be as independent-minded in Washington as he was as governor, Blackburn repeatedly brought up Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

"Phil Bredesen has said he would have voted against the tax cuts," Blackburn said at one point. "Chuck Schumer has bought and paid for his campaign."

After the first time Blackburn said it, Bredesen declared he is no one's "political lackey" and then said "we need to get new leadership. I will tell you right now, that if I'm elected, and when I'm elected and go to Washington, I am not going to be voting for Chuck Schumer."

Undeterred, Blackburn went on to drive the message hard, saying it 11 more times.

A familiar (Chattanooga) face in the crowd

Among debate attendees was someone that not only many Chattanoogans but members of the state's legal community would know: Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice and Republican Justice William "Mickey" Barker, from Signal Mountain.

He is supporting Bredesen and later joined other supporters who spoke to reporters following the debate.

"Gov. Bredesen always kept his word with me," Barker said prior to the debate. "When it comes down to an election like this, my priorities are No. 1, America. No. 2, the state of Tennessee. And No. 3, partisan politics is way down the list."

Barker said Bredesen "is going to do something that's not been done recently. We're going to have people who can get along. We don't need all this bickering and so forth, and he won't do that. Nobody can tell him what to do, either. He'll do what's right for Tennessee, not what's right for Chuck Schumer."

Earlier in the campaign, Barker defended Bredesen in a Times Free Press interview as Republicans charged that if Democrats gained control of the Senate, the former governor would never vote to confirm President Donald Trump's nominees. Barker cited two instances in which Bredesen named Republicans, including appointing William Koch to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Barker did not say, however, who he supports in the governor's race.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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