By SCOTT SMITH
FORT WAYNE — Democrat John Gregg came out swinging in the third and final gubernatorial debate Thursday, in what might have been his last, best chance to further narrow the race.
Republican Mike Pence, whose lead in the polls is still formidable, if not the double-digit lead it was a few weeks ago, sparred with Gregg but more often spoke around his opponents and directly to the audience.
Afterwards Pence called it a “civil and substantive debate.”
In opening remarks at the WFWA-TV studio in Fort Wayne, Gregg attempting to tie Pence to candidate Richard Mourdock’s rape comments from Tuesday’s Senate debate.
“You tried to separate yourself from your ticket mate, Richard Mourdock,” Gregg said. “Mike Pence can’t separate himself from the Tea Party, because he is the Tea Party.”
Pence took shots at Gregg over Gregg’s tenure as Indiana House Speaker, saying the state’s credit rating “was downgraded twice” shortly after Gregg left the position.
To Gregg’s contention of leaving a balanced budget in each of his six years as speaker, Pence rebutted: “You did it by using budget gimmicks. You raided reserves. You put off payments to local schools.”
The back-and-forth between Pence and Gregg was punctuated by Libertarian candidate Rupert Boneham, unorthodox as always, who suggested allowing county government to keep the income tax revenue now flowing to the state.
“We need to build from the local level up,” he said.
Boneham was also the only candidate to take a direct stance on the idea of teaching creationism in schools, saying it was something alternative schools could teach.
“We need to keep science science,” he said.
On Mourdock, Gregg hammered Pence in post-debate comments, saying Pence’s positions on abortion and Mourdock continue to shift.
“I brought up how Mike Pence has changed his position on abortion, and he didn’t deny it,” Gregg said. “Yesterday he called on Mourdock for an apology, and last night he went to a fundraiser with him. That’s the D.C. way.”
Pence said his position is to oppose abortion funding except in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother; last year he only checked off the latter exception in an Indiana Right To Life survey.
The auto loans also provided a point of contention, as they have in previous debates, but this time Pence did more to clarify his position, saying he had favored “debtor in possession” financing, backed by federal loan guarantees, rather than direct government loans.
“I will never believe we can borrow and spend and bail our way back to a growing economy. I wanted a backstop, not a handout,” Pence said.
Gregg came up with another one-liner to punctuate his rebuttal point.
“If we’d have followed your plan, the [GM Fort Wayne plant] would be the world’s largest indoor flea market,” Gregg said. “It wasn’t a bailout, it was a loan to the auto industry. It was an investment in Indiana workers.”
The topic of medical marijuana was raised by one of the five Indiana residents selected to pose a question during the debate.
Gregg said he was against decriminalizing marijuana, but said, as a cancer survivor, he would consider medical use.
“I’d not be inclined to [sign a bill], but I’d be inclined to listen,” he said.
Pence was adamant in opposition, saying he’d seen lives sidetracked by marijuana, which he called a “gateway drug.”
Boneham suggested pharmaceutical companies might have a stake in preventing access to medical marijuana.
“Prohibition hasn’t worked. If it would help some of our suffering patients, we should let them have that plant,” he said.
The debate featured a Lincoln-Douglas section, in which each candidate was allowed a minute to pose a topic, then each opponent allowed two minutes to rebut before the originator of the topic was given a minute to close.
Gregg chose Pence’s opposition to the auto loans as his topic, while Boneham asked how the others would help non-profits reach out to the disadvantaged. Pence questioned Gregg on the deficit spending which left the state with more than $800 million in back payments owed to schools at the end of Frank O’Bannon’s governorship.
“When you were Speaker, five of the six years, Indiana ran deficits. The state had a $700 million deficit. When Mitch Daniels came in, we finally had an honest, balanced budget,” Pence said.
Gregg said it was “laughable a congressman would lecture anybody on fiscal responsibility.”
If neither candidate could make the other squirm too badly during the debate, it was up to the press to make them both uncomfortable afterwards.
Gregg declined to answer whether he’d allow creationism to be taught in schools, saying instead that “for the past 15 or 20 years, we’ve allowed the Bible to be taught as literature in public schools. And that’s where I’ll leave it.”
A further clarification wasn’t forthcoming.
Likewise Pence declined an answer when reporters asked him what he thought Richard Mourdock had to apologize for.
Mourdock created waves when he said Tuesday that all life is a gift from God, then went on to say “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
“I’m pleased he clarified his comments and apologized, and I think it’s time to move on,” was Pence’s statement.
Scott Smith can be reached at (765) 454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.