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PROVO — There were a few sharp exchanges in Friday's debate between the three candidates in the 3rd Congressional District GOP primary, mostly aimed at the frontrunner, Provo Mayor John Curtis.
After the candidates had given mostly similar responses to a range of questions, Tanner Ainge brought up Curtis' past as a Democrat when asked about bridging the partisan divide in Washington, D.C.
"I'm a little bit concerned about my opponent, John Curtis, because while I think it's important to work together, I don't think you actually have to switch sides," Ainge, an Alpine lawyer, said to a mix of boos and applause.
Curtis responded by saying he "once had a fling on the dark side," just as President Donald Trump, former President Ronald Reagan and the former congressman from the district, Jason Chaffetz had as one-time Democrats.
"That was 20 years ago and I've never looked back. Some people will never forgive me for that," Curtis told the audience gathered for the debate sponsored by the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Salt Lake Tribune.
Former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, who like Ainge, lags behind Curtis in polling, didn't initially address the issue, but later said he agreed with Ainge, and brought up Provo's new bus rapid transit line, known as BRT.
"I am concerned when people say they are conservative, but their actions are not. It's a problem," Herrod said.
Curtis' campaign was ready with copies for reporters of a statement made by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert Thursday about having been "a little off-putted by the negative campaigning" in the race. Herbert has endorsed Curtis.
Then Curtis said Herrod had supported tax increases while serving in the Utah House, including a quarter-cent hike for transportation that helped fund BRT. Herrod said after the debate he did not believe he had voted for any tax increases.
Ainge, who is a political newcomer, jumped in to say he was the only candidate who had "never raised taxes and never will."
Curtis smiled and said, "Tanner, we are so proud of you."
The crowd at the Utah Valley Convention Center did not fill the seats set up for the event, and many wore T-shirts or other campaign gear making it clear they already knew who they were voting for in the Aug. 15 primary.
The winner of the primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen and several other candidates in November's special election to replace Chaffetz, who resigned June 30 and is now a Fox News contributor.
Polls have given Curtis a substantial lead among Republicans in the 3rd District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties.
After the debate, Curtis' campaign manager, Danny Laub, slammed the out-of-state super PACs flooding the airwaves with commercials against Curtis on behalf of Ainge and Herrod.
Curtis said given those commercials, he was surprised there weren't more attacks during the debate. But he also made light of the tension on stage, including his retort about being proud of Ainge.
"I think all of us were having a fun moment and it was meant to be fun," Curtis said. "I actually enjoyed the debate and I didn't think I would."
Ainge said afterward it is "important for people to know in a Republican primary if someone has a record of increasing spending or increasing taxes or even running as a candidate in the Democrat Party or being chair of the Democrat Party."
He said Curtis is "a good guy" and that he is not a negative campaigner. "It's just about record, we're running on our record, we're running on our political principles," Ainge said. "This is a friendly campaign. We have to go a little bit back and forth."
Herrod said he believed it was fair to bring up Curtis' record. But Herrod said he's been frustrated by some of the "silly things" brought up in the super PAC ads supporting him, such as Curtis' appearance.
"I like the way John looks. I wouldn't have made fun. I think that makes me look petty. I would have preferred that not to go out," Herrod said. "They're trying to help me, but I don't know that they have."
Earlier in the debate, Herrod poked Curtis over the Provo Police Department policy of focusing on protecting citizens, not acting as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, when answering a question about sanctuary cities.
"We cannot adopt sanctuary policies. Again, when that happens, then you encourage more people to come," Herrod said. "It's simply not fair."
Curtis said the city's police officers would "be extremely offended if someone said Provo was a sanctuary city." He said he worked as mayor to make it clear immigrants in the country illegally were not being given sanctuary.
There was also a bit of back and forth between Curtis and Herrod over the ongoing investigations into Russia's meddling in the presidential election and whether there was collusion by the Trump campaign.
Herrod said it was important to maintain open communications with Russia and that there was a difference between attempts to influence the election and tampering with voting machines.
Curtis said the United States can't be tough with the world except for Russia. He said the investigation into Trump's ties to Russia "might be a witch hunt and it might be real. We need to let the appropriate people figure it out." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: DNewsPolitics