MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen took some soft jabs at Republican opponent Marsha Blackburn on Thursday for refusing to debate him in Memphis, Tennessee, while also unnerving some supporters when he said he could back policies made by President Donald Trump — as long as they help the state.
Bredesen, a Democrat, answered questions from audience members and Twitter posters at a forum at Rhodes College in Memphis, the largest city in West Tennessee. More than 400 people attended the session scheduled on the same day Bredesen wanted to debate Blackburn, who has represented a Middle Tennessee district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2002.
Bredesen said he was disappointed that Blackburn didn't agree to the Memphis debate. Blackburn's campaign has said a scheduling conflict prevented her from attending. The two Senate candidates are scheduled to debate Sept. 25 at Cumberland University in Lebanon.
An audience member at the college forum asked Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor, how he could help West Tennessee achieve advancements like those experienced by other parts of the state.
"Actually come to Memphis and listen," Bredesen said.
Later, when asked what is the top U.S. problem that needs to be addressed, he took aim at Washington politicians.
"The inability of Washington to get anything constructive done is the No. 1 problem," he said.
In a statement, Blackburn's campaign noted the scheduling conflict and said "the Memphis region knows Marsha Blackburn is on their side, and she will continue to fight for them."
In a second statement from Blackburn's campaign, spokeswoman Abbi Sigler said Blackburn is running to remind the Senate that it is expected to solve problems.
"It is broken and dysfunctional and in desperate need of positive, conservative change," the statement said.
The room was mostly filled with Bredesen supporters, and some hardcore Democrats. At least a few squirmed in their seats when Bredesen said that while Trump does "a lot of things ... that I don't like," he would support Trump policies that would help Tennessee.
"If he proposes something which I think is good for the state of Tennessee and its people, I need to support that and not oppose it just because he's the president from the other party," Bredesen said.
An audience member pressed the issue. The questioner said some of Bredesen's supporters were "a little bit troubled" by his statements about possibly supporting Trump on certain issues, which drew a smattering of applause.
He then asked Bredesen for examples of policies or proposals that he supports and disagrees with.
Bredesen reiterated positions he has outlined in the past — that he was willing to give Trump "elbow room" with his stance against North Korea's nuclear aggression and generally agrees with Trump's "general impulse" to knock back regulations contained in the U.S. bureaucracy.
The candidate added he disagrees with Trump's move to increase trade tariffs on certain goods, which Bredesen has said could hurt Tennessee's farmers and businesses.
"I'm acutely aware of the fact that we have a president and an administration that people have very emotional reactions to," Bredesen said. "I've always been someone who said, "'You've gotta kind of knock that stuff back just a little bit.'"
Trump has been featured in a pro-Blackburn TV spot criticizing Bredesen. In the ad, Trump says Bredesen "will 100 percent vote against us every single time."
Meanwhile, a new ad for Blackburn features people saying they cannot vote for Bredesen. The speakers claim Bredesen opposes Trump's border wall and tax cuts, while backing the Affordable Care Act passed by former President Barack Obama.
Bredesen's campaign suggested the ad features actors, not real voters. Blackburn's campaign said the ad shows "real, unpaid Tennessee voters."