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SALT LAKE CITY -- A rather sleepy debate turned testy Thursday morning as the major party candidates for governor traded jabs about campaign finance and negative campaigning.
Gov. Gary Herbert and his Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, faced off Thursday morning during a debate on KSL NewsRadio's Doug Wright Show. Both candidates have traded verbal punches throughout this race, but the tension reached new levels when Corroon brought the name Rod Blagojevich into the conversation.
The hour-long debate touched on education, nuclear waste, gay rights, the economy, immigration and health care reform. But no topic generated sparks like accusations about the influence of campaign contributions on state decisions, along with aggressive negative campaigning in the wake of revelations the state paid $13 million to a losing bidder of the I-15 CORE project after another contractor -- also a big Herbert campaign donor -- won the contract.
The most heated exchange of the campaign so far emerged when Corroon cited research his campaign committee has conducted on Herbert.
You know the person who did the research on this issue said it was the worst they'd seen since Rod Blagojevich in Illinois.
"You know the person who did the research on this issue said it was the worst they'd seen since Rod Blagojevich in Illinois," said Corroon. "The pattern of donations, contributions, meetings, contracts, incentives given to companies. I think it's wrong and I think we need to change the system."
Gov. Herbert, however, called those accusations completely false. "You're not truthful. It's about your making allegations that are not factually truthful," he said.
"You've never disputed any of the facts Gary," said Corroon.
"We've disputed a lot of the conclusions," replied Herbert.
After the debate, Herbert took exception to Corroon's remark. "That was another typical negative, I guess, slander," he said. "I think it was unfortunate that the Corroon campaign has decided to go negative. I guess they're going to go negative to the very end. To invoke Blagojevich's name in this campaign is despicable."
I think it was unfortunate that the Corroon campaign has decided to go negative. I guess they're going to go negative to the very end. To invoke Blagojevich's name in this campaign is despicable.
–Gov. Gary Herbert
Corroon fired back. "Gary Herbert is asking me to apologize, when he's the one who should be apologizing to the citizens of Utah for the way he's been using the governor's office," he said.
Also during the debate, Corroon made no apologies for his campaign ads, which often attack Herbert and his policies. "I think the governor's office is being used for campaign purposes. I think it's wrong. I think the system needs to change," Corroon said.
But Herbert said the ads are mudslinging, and it's "only coming from one direction."
Corroon said it was appropriate to question the donations given to Herbert's campaign by people who've also done business with the state.
"The fact is that we've seen repeated patterns of misuse of the governor's office," Corroon said. "We've seen the strip-mining project where special favors were given and a state employee said directly on television that the governor's office told them to speed up the approval process after a $10,000 contribution."
Corroon said he thinks it's a fair and important issue to bring up.
But Herbert claims Corroon is using selected facts to mislead people. "It's the conclusions that are false," he said.
The governor brought another example in which he is accused of greasing the wheels for a permit for Bill Barrett Corp. to drill on lands in Southern Utah.
The company made a $56,000 donation to Herbert's campaign. But Herbert said the permit had to come from the federal government, not the state.
"Would you at least apologize to me on that one and Bill Barrett?" he asked Corroon.
"If you could say that state government has nothing to do with these permits, I think you're wrong," Corroon replied.
Corroon went on the attack when the two candidates debated education funding. "I don't think (Herbert) has a plan for education," he said. "In fact, I haven't seen any plan for education."
Corroon said the state needs a long-term plan for education funding, especially since classes sizes are expected to rise. "My plan is not to wait for the economy to turn around but to support education in good times and in bad," he said.
Corroon also said the governor has cut way too much money meant for students. But Herbert said he's not just talking about education funding, but doing something about it.
"We've actually increased education funding by $600 million during my watch," he said. "We've increased funding even today two times faster than the student population growth."
Herbert also said he fought against more cuts during the legislative session and that the best way to grow education is by growing the economy.
Corroon argued the government can still spend money on education without raising taxes.
There are just two debates left before Election Day. One air's this Sunday on KSL's Sunday Edition with Bruce Lindsay. The other is Tuesday at the University of Utah, which will be televised live on KSL Channel 5.
Story compiled with contributions from John Daley, Marc Giauque and Cleon Wall.