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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky voters got their first look at the Republican candidates for governor Monday night in the only statewide televised debate of the race, which touched on James Comer's college girlfriend, Hal Heiner's campaign tactics and Matt Bevin's political loyalties.
The hourlong debate pitted Comer, Heiner, Bevin and Will T. Scott against each other in a roundtable-style discussion on Kentucky Educational Television one week from the May 19 primary, giving many voters their first up-close look at a campaign that has been largely waged at county Republican Party dinners and lunchtime forums at colleges and civic clubs. And it gave each candidate a unique opportunity to best position his campaign heading into the election's final week.
For Comer, it was his best chance to address allegations of abuse from his former college girlfriend. Marilyn Thomas was quoted by the Courier Journal last week as saying that Comer had mentally and physically abused her. Comer forcefully denied the allegations in a news conference last week. Monday night's debate might have been the first time some voters even heard about the accusations, since his rivals have not questioned him about it or run any attack ads on the issue.
"We've addressed these issues. I think the ultimate jury is the voters and I'm confident ... that people believe me," Comer said.
For Bevin, it was an opportunity for him to shed his image as a tea party contrarian and put himself forward as a statesman who can rise above the grit of partisan politics.
"Up until about a month ago, we had a good civil discourse. Then one candidate — and everybody knows which candidate it was — they decided to soil the bed and it's a shame," Bevin said, referring to Heiner and a nonprofit group that has paid for negative TV ads on his behalf.
"Unfortunately, this soiled bed that we have now been forced to live in, somebody's going to have to live in it between May 20 and the general election."
For Heiner, Monday's debate was a chance to solidify his front-runner status by deflecting attacks from Comer and Bevin and rallying the party faithful in what could be a low-turnout election.
"It's no surprise that Matt is here ... and once again he is attacking another Republican," Heiner said, referring to Bevin's unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2014 primary. "He's done nothing, quite frankly, but trash Republicans for the past two years."
But after the debate's opening salvos, host Bill Goodman steered the candidates to seldom-discussed issues, including a discussion about the best way to pay for Kentucky's public school teachers. Heiner said teachers "absolutely" should be paid based on their performance, not seniority.
"Right now we simply have a longevity system," Heiner said.
Comer said he worried that paying teachers based solely on performance would usher in a new set of standards, similar to the Common Core standards that Comer and the other candidates say they would repeal because they pose a threat to Kentucky's power to decide how to educate its children.
"There are a lot of things that need to be changed about the way teachers are compensated, and the bottom line is, teachers are underpaid and we have to focus on funding their retirement system," Comer said.
When Goodman asked candidates to raise their hands if they believe teachers should be paid more, Bevin was the only one not to raise his. He said teachers should be paid more depending on the results they get in the classroom.
"If you want good teachers, incent the behaviors that create a good teacher," he said.
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