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SALT LAKE CITY — Sparks flew during a 3rd Congressional District debate Monday over the negative campaigning nearly entirely aimed at the frontrunner in the GOP primary, Provo Mayor John Curtis.
"For the first time, people are hearing me swing back a little bit. I've been attacked about my record and I'm proud of my record. I'm not going to sit still and let people use distortions and half-truths," Curtis told reporters afterward.
Former state lawmaker Chris Herrod said the money being spent by out-of-state super political action committees on Utah's Aug. 15 Republican primary shows "how vital" the outcome is. "The reason there's so much money in this race is the stakes are high."
Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge told reporters he doesn't believe the super PAC ads are "real negative campaigning" and said it is important to point out differences. But he said he wished instead, "we could all have an even platform to just talk about our records."
During the hour-long debate broadcast on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show," Curtis challenged both Ainge and Herrod to denounce the advertising being paid for by the largely Washington, D.C.-based PACs
Herrod said candidates have no control over spending by the political action committees, but then questioned Curtis' claims that he is a conservative given his support for the Bus Rapid Transit project in Provo known as BRT.
"I don't believe that it is negative to compare things, but some of the snarkiness of some of the things I haven't appreciated," Herrod said. "But there are differences in records and those things are OK to talk about."
Ainge said he doesn't believe "there is a place in politics for personal attacks" and then brought up that he has "taken a lot of incoming flak from both other campaigns and from outside groups" but considers it part of the process.
The political newcomer said a "thick skin" is going to be needed in Congress.
Curtis sparred with both Herrod and Ainge over some of the claims made in the campaign, which has seen well over $500,000 spent by a variety of super PACs, according to federal disclosures.
Herrod pushed back on the federal money being used to pay for the BRT and said both he and Ainge said Curtis had raised taxes during his eight years as mayor of Provo.
"That's a lie," Curtis said, noting the mayor does not have the power to increase taxes. He said property taxes in the largest city in the district are lower than they were when he took office.
With just over a week until Election Day, the candidates took on an even sharper tone than they have in their past three debates, although they still largely agreed on the need for less federal control over a number of issues.
The 3rd District, which includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties, has been without a representative since Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned June 30 and became a Fox News contributor.
The election is being conducted largely by mail in most of the district and ballots were sent out late last month. Utahns have until Tuesday to register to vote in the primary election, which is open only to Republican voters.
The winner of the GOP primary will face several candidates in November's general election for the remainder of Chaffetz's term, including Democrat Kathie Allen and new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett.