Police pepper-sprayed protesters outside Georges Auditorium during a televised U.S. Senate debate at Dillard University on Wednesday night, while inside, the target of their venom, David Duke, became embroiled in arguments with the other candidates and even the moderator, WVUE-TV anchor John Snell.

Snell and the three journalists on the panel tried to keep the 60-minute debate on track with questions about the federal health care law, taxes, Social Security, the U.S. Supreme Court and the candidates’ political leanings.

State Treasurer John Kennedy, the front-runner, according to polls, found himself under attack by the other candidates.

Kennedy had to explain why he supported then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 when Kennedy was a Democrat. Kennedy, who became a Republican in 2007, defended himself by saying Ronald Reagan, former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin and even Donald Trump were once Democrats.

“(Kennedy) switched when this state became a Republican state,” retorted U.S. Rep. John Fleming.

“The state treasurer is like a publicity hound,” said Caroline Fayard, a Democrat.

“This election is about change,” Kennedy said. “Either you like the direction the Washington insiders have taken America, or you don’t. I don’t. ... You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote it out.”

The candidates focused on issues when they could.

Fleming, Kennedy, Duke and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany — all Republicans — said they would repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as "Obamacare," while Fayard and Foster Campbell, the other Democrat, said they would retain it but make changes.

The four Republicans also voiced support for putting a conservative on the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this year. Campbell and Fayard said the Senate should do its job and confirm Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Scalia.

The debate repeatedly centered on Duke, either from the other candidates’ attacks on him or his own comments. He stopped the debate early on to accuse Snell of not letting him answer a question.

 

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Fayard and Campbell traded insults over who was more anti-Duke, while Duke lashed out at the two Democrats and labeled the three other Republicans as “corrupt” members of the political establishment.

“I’m not a supremacist,” Duke said in response to Fayard at one point when she called him a white supremacist. “I believe in equal rights for all,” said Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and state representative. “We have a media that puts out hate propaganda against white people.”

Standing next to Duke, Fayard said she wanted “to cut off the head of his hatred once and for all.”

That gave Campbell an opening to call Fayard a “liar” for running a television advertisement where he is heard saying he “is like Duke.” Campbell — and independent analysts — have said Fayard took his words out of context in comments made at a forum sponsored by the Alliance for Good Government. Fayard’s ad prompted the group to rescind its endorsement of her.

Campbell has launched a fierce counterattack to the ad, featuring scathing remarks about Fayard from state Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; New Orleans City Councilman James Gray; and former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.

“Nothing in the ad is untrue,” Fayard said during the debate.

That Duke’s presence at a debate hosted by a historically black university produced fireworks came as no surprise, given his extremist views and the polarizing reactions he provokes.

The one-hour debate from Dillard — televised on C-SPAN nationally and on Raycom Media stations throughout the state — marked the second and final debate during a Senate campaign that has raised few passions. No major issue has emerged to divide all of the candidates.

The event took place only six days before Election Day and provided each of the six candidates an electronic forum to win over enough voters to qualify for the runoff campaign — which will begin the day after Tuesday’s primary and end with the election of the winner on Dec. 10. The new senator will replace Sen. David Vitter, who chose not to seek a third term.

Polls have shown Kennedy to be the strongest candidate, followed closely by Boustany and Campbell and then Fayard and Fleming. Duke has badly trailed the other five in polls but claims that he is dramatically underpolling and will win a spot in the runoff.

Not qualifying for Wednesday night’s debate were conservative Republican Rob Maness and 17 minor candidates.

Campbell noted that he is the only candidate who has released his tax return.

All four Republicans supported Trump, the Republican presidential nominee. Fayard and Campbell said they support Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

The debate took place in Georges Auditorium, a 400-seat hall that was nearly empty as Raycom Media officials chose to exclude students, the general public and reporters, who had to watch the event from a nearby room.

Before the debate, a group of 50-75 students protested outside Dillard’s gates and then outside of the auditorium. “No Duke/No KKK/No Fascist USA,” they chanted. Two protesters were detained at one point, but university authorities relented and released them after the larger group of students protested.

Dillard University police pepper-sprayed the protesters twice as they rushed the entrance, said university spokesman David Grubb.

The candidates said they could hear the students chanting outside and banging on the doors to get in.

Afterward, protesters blocked the main gate, but Duke left via another exit.

Campbell, who lives on a farm in Bossier Parish, noted he has the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Fayard has the backing of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as well as his sister, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Fayard, an attorney from New Orleans who lost her only bid for elected office in 2010, kept up her campaign theme that she best represents the change voters want.

Fleming, who kept up his campaign message as the one true conservative in the race, has represented north Louisiana since 2008. He has the support of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a far-right favorite who will campaign with him on Monday.

Kennedy, an attorney, was first elected as state treasurer in 1999. Since becoming a Republican, he has lost a Senate race and won re-election three more times as treasurer.

Boustany, who presented himself as a conservative who gets results, has represented Acadiana and coastal parishes since 2004.

“I actually have gotten legislation passed,” Boustany said.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.