(CBS News) Going up against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in the first debate of Missouri's hotly-contested Senate race, Republican candidate Todd Akin on Friday sought to move past his comments on "legitimate rape" that have significantly hurt his campaign.
"I don't believe this election overall is about talk," Akin said, after the first question in the debate asked the candidates to address whether Akin's controversial remarks should matter to voters.
"It's really about two visions of what America is," he continued. "Are we going to go down the path of Greece... or are we going to go down the path America has always been on where we allow freedom... It seems to me what a senator should be doing is taking the common sense that you and I know in Missouri and taking that to Washington, D.C."
Akin, a six-term Republican congressman, came under fire last month after suggesting in a local interview that women are unlikely to become pregnant if they are victims of "legitimate rape." The national Republican party is no longer financially supporting his campaign, and several Republicans have called on Akin to bow out of the race, but he's maintained he's not dropping out.
Even though McCaskill is one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election this year, she appears to have an edge over Akin in the polls.
In the debate, Akin cast McCaskill as a close Obama ally who supports big-government solutions for problems best left to the private sector. "It's your choice," he told voters, "more freedom or more Washington."
McCaskill, meanwhile, described herself as a moderate and characterized Akin as a Tea Party-aligned extremist only interested in giving tax breaks to the wealthy. She said that Missouri voters should "pay attention" to his remarks about rape because they illustrate how "out of the mainstream" he is.
"It's not what he said that's the problem, it what he believes that's the problem," she said.
Akin said he believes in moving "away from the concept that government has to do everything, solve everything." He pointed to health care as the prime example, arguing that Missouri voters, like him, don't want "the efficiency of the federal government and the compassion of the IRS running our health care."
If elected to the Senate, he said, "I'll be the one to ensure [President Obama's health care law] gets repealed totally."
Akin advocated for allowing "choices" for seniors who benefit from Medicare, while McCaskill blasted him for supporting a "voucher" program that she said would leave seniors out to dry. "Once you spend your voucher, you're on your own," she said.
The senator did say she supported "more aggressive means testing" for Medicare. "I don't think we can afford to buy Donald Trump's prescription drugs," she said.
McCaskill stressed her cooperation with Republican senators, listing off the conservatives she's worked with, including her Missouri colleague Sen. Roy Blunt and Sens. John McCain, Jim DeMint and John Thune. She blasted Akin for joining House Republicans in holding up bipartisan legislation like the farm bill.
"Thats the kind of gridlock we don't need in Washington," she said.
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.