KANSAS CITY • Democrat Robin Carnahan went on the attack early and often Thursday in the only televised debate between Missouri's two U.S. Senate candidates, telling her opponent, Republican Roy Blunt, to "man up" and defend his record.

Blunt, who has been ahead in every public poll in the race, mostly avoided direct confrontation. Carnahan, as she has in her television ads, continually called her opponent corrupt and directly challenged him.

"Even your own party thought you were too tainted" to lead, Carnahan said, referring to Blunt losing a vote to become majority leader when Republicans still controlled the U.S. House.

Several times during the debate, Blunt responded to Carnahan's attacks by saying that her campaign had distorted his record and had a double standard on issues such as campaign donations from lobbyists.

The debate, which was aired Thursday night in St. Louis, was one of two in the highly watched Senate race. The other faceoff will be today at the Lake of the Ozarks before the Missouri Press Association.

In Thursday's one-hour debate, taped at the studios of KCPT, Kansas City's public television station, the candidates answered questions about health care, government spending, earmarks, Afghanistan and global warming.

They sparred most intensely over the issue of health care, with Carnahan accusing Blunt of suggesting Medicare was a bad program.

"There's no one here listening who believes you are a protector of Medicare," said Carnahan, adding that Blunt once said the country might have been better off if Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly, had never been implemented.

"I have never said that," Blunt shot back, moving from behind his podium and pointing directly at Carnahan.

Tension over health care flared again later, when Blunt said he would work to repeal the health care reform law and replace it with measures such as medical malpractice limits and risk-pooling associations for small businesses.

That's when Carnahan told Blunt that if he wanted to repeal insurance mandates, "you ought to repeal your own first. Man up, and do what you're asking other people to do."

Trying to catch up with only 19 days left before the election, Carnahan, the secretary of state for six years, came out swinging in her opening remarks. She said that during Blunt's 14 years in Congress, he had supported "corporate bailouts," wasteful earmarked spending and special favors for lobbyists.

Blunt largely stayed focused on his campaign themes, even reaching out to Democrats frustrated with what he called their national leaders' "extremist" agenda on issues such as the energy bill known as cap and trade.

He said he had been a leader in seeking budget cuts and that the congressional earmark Carnahan criticized was part of a $355 billion defense appropriation bill that her mother, former Sen. Jean Carnahan, voted for.

Blunt also defended his vote for the $700 billion bailout bill that was aimed at shoring up the country's financial system. He said the actual cost of the plan has been much lower.

"If you're investing in the economy in a way that has to be paid back and has largely been paid back in 18 months, that's not a gift to anybody," Blunt said.

Carnahan said she would support a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists. She repeated her assertion that Blunt is the No. 1 recipient of lobbyist largesse.

"I am their worst enemy," she said. "They know they can't buy me."

Blunt said that his lobbyist donations ranked the highest at one point, early in the Senate campaign, but that Carnahan was misstating the facts and had herself received donations from three senators who actually received the most lobbyist donations.

Blunt stressed his theme of private sector job creation, accusing Carnahan of lacking details on how she would boost the economy. He used a reference to the popular social media network, Twitter, to make his sharpest jab in the debate.

"You could tweet her jobs plan in four tweets," he said.

The two candidates meet for their second and final debate at 10:30 a.m. today in Lake of the Ozarks. It can be seen online at fox4kc.com/mocandidateforums.