DES MOINES - Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin declared voters were the losers after the one-sided debate she staged Sunday to highlight her contention that U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is refusing to meet her on the same stage to discuss issues in this year's Senate race.

"If he cannot defend his record, he does not deserve to be elected," Conlin said after a one-hour "empty chair" debate she held after Grassley declined her invitation for a face-to-face encounter at the Des Moines Public Library.

The event drew about 200 people for what was billed as a "Lincoln-Douglas"-style exchange that ended up being Conlin against a "virtual" opponent whom she spoke for at times or provided video clips of answers from Grassley in his own words.

Grassley's campaign billed Sunday's event as a "disingenuous publicity stunt."

Conlin said she chose to hold the event after hearing that Grassley's wife, Barbara, advised a GOP congressional candidate who was having trouble getting an incumbent to debate to simply set a time and, if the opponent fails to show, to "do the empty chair routine."

So, Conlin said, that's what did. She had proposed the event Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, Senator Grassley did not take advantage of the opportunity afforded him, so it really wasn't much of a contest," Conlin said.

Grassley could not make the event because he had to be in California for today's scheduled taping of a Dr. Phil television episode featuring adoption legislation that the senator co-sponsored, said Grassley campaign spokesman Eric Woolson.

He said Grassley has tried to negotiate in good faith with Conlin and even agreed to move a scheduled radio debate to Oct. 26 when Conlin said the original date conflicted with her schedule.

"This is the same old cynical politics that turns voters off. It was her campaign rally, she packed the event, she knew what the questions were so she knew what her answers would be and she never expected Chuck Grassley to show up," Woolson said.

"Over the course of this campaign, she's talked to plenty of empty chairs, so this was nothing new today. This isn't the first empty chair she's spoken to," he added. "I think it hurts Roxanne Conlin because people see she's not about substance, she's about stunts."

Sunday's event gave Conlin the chance to highlight her positions and differences with Grassley on federal tax policy, immigration reform, keeping Social Security solvent without privatization, health care reform and Medicare plan D prescription drug policies, campaign finance, civil rights, extending unemployment benefits and term limits.

The Rev. H. Milton Cole of West Des Moines said the event was informative and provided him more information than TV campaign ads that have indicated that Grassley's spouse supports him and that "he can tweet."

In her closing statement, Conlin warned Sunday's attendees that she expected Grassley's TV spots to go negative soon and she asked for contributions since she does not accept special-interest or PAC money to help her make sure "the truth goes viral" in responding to any attacks that may misrepresent her or her positions on issues.

"She's already gone negative," Woolson countered. "If she's worried about anybody going negative, she ought to look in the mirror and take down her negative ads."

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