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updated 10/14/2010 1:27:51 PM ET 2010-10-14T17:27:51

Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway took opposite stands on employee unionization during a U.S. Senate debate Thursday in western Kentucky, a region made up predominantly of conservative Democrats.

Paul and Conway, vying for the job of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, faced off in downtown Paducah in the third political debate of the fall campaign season.

Paul positioned himself as a staunch opponent of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, a federal initiative that would allow workers to join unions simply by filling out a card. Conway said he believes employees should be able to form a union if 50 percent of workers want one.

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The proposed measure is currently stalled in Congress. It would allow workers to unionize if at least 50 percent of them filled out the card, a change from the secret balloting system now in place.

The two clashed on several issues that exposed their differences on term limits, federal spending, immigration and environmental legislation. And Paul said if he's elected he would vote for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell to continue serving as that chamber's Republican leader. Conway wouldn't say whether he would vote for Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to continue serving as that chamber's Democratic leader.

"The ability to sit down and talk about the terms and conditions of your employment is a fundamental American right for workers, and I stand up for that," said Conway, who has endorsements from Kentucky's major labor organizations. "And I think if 50 percent of workers want to form a union, they ought to be able to form a union."

Paul has been a vocal critic of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. He said it "creates and allows unions to be formed and forced on businesses that don't want to have unions."

Nate Byer, spokesman for the Kentucky AFL-CIO, said Paul is "an extension of the same policies and same ideas that have been devastating the middle class" while Conway "has proven himself as someone who will step up for Kentucky's working families."

Both candidates have been crisscrossing the state for votes in the final weeks before the Nov. 2 election. They've debated three times in the past two weeks, and they have two additional face-offs scheduled in Louisville and Lexington.

Conway has received help from nationally prominent Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton who campaigned for him earlier this week. Paul has gotten boosts from several big-name Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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