By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - A popular former Tennessee Democratic governor positioned himself as a centrist in a race that will help determine control of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, while his Republican rival strove to paint him as a mere follower of Washington Democrats.
Former Governor Phil Bredesen and U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn are locked in an unexpectedly close race in deeply conservative Tennessee. Democrats see the race as an opportunity to win one of the two additional seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans and gain the power to slow or stop elements of U.S. President Donald Trump's populist conservative agenda.
"The number one issue for Tennesseans has got to be the overarching issue of how dysfunctional Washington has become," said Bredesen, 74. "It's become hyperpartisan. It's become almost impossible to get things done."
Once a reliably Democratic state, Tennessee has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since Bredesen's 2006 gubernatorial victory. Trump won the southern state by more than 20 points in 2016, though retiring Senator Bob Corker, who holds the seat Bredesen and Blackburn are vying for, has become one of his most vocal Republican critics.
Blackburn tried to tie Bredesen to national Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump's former rival Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
A vote for Bredesen, she said repeatedly, "is a vote for Chuck Schumer," though Bredesen said he would not vote for Schumer in a leadership role.
The president has endorsed Blackburn, 66, and is due in the state next week to campaign for her, but neither candidate made much mention of Trump during the debate at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee.
Blackburn echoed many of the Trump administration's buzzwords, saying she wanted to "drain the swamp" in Washington and end sanctuary city policies, under which many jurisdictions limit the interactions of local police with immigration enforcement.
"Democrats are focused on taking away your Second Amendment rights," she said when asked about gun control. "That is something that is paramount for them."
Polls over the past few weeks have shown a tight race, with experts saying that Bredesen must win over independents and Republicans in addition to Democrats to win.
A poll last week by the Republican firm Vox Populi Polling gave the Democrat a 2 percentage point lead over Blackburn. The poll had a 4 percent margin of error.
Both candidates criticized Trump's trade policies, which have hurt farmers in the state, through Blackburn described the tariffs as a necessary economic defense.
Asked to name a Trump policy that he agreed with, Bredesen praised the president's efforts to win concessions from North Korea, saying he was willing to give Trump "some elbow room" to find ways to deal with the state and its autocratic leader, Kim Jong Un.
Blackburn reiterated her support for Trump's latest Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, despite accusations of teenage sexual misconduct. Bredesen said he would want to hear from Kavanaugh's accuser before deciding.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Scott Malone)