By Matt Werner
Times Sentinel writer
Zionsville — The first gubernatorial debate among Republican Mike Pence, Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rupert Boneham started out cordially Wednesday night with common agreement on the need to boost jobs, strengthen education and cut taxes.
But it didn’t take long for differences and verbal jabs to emerge -- mostly from Gregg directed toward Pence, the presumptive front-runner.
During the televised debate, in front of a live audience of 1,200 along with representatives of about 50 media outlets, Pence and Gregg disagreed on the cost of the sweeping federal healthcare program known as Obamacare, the impact of Indiana’s new “right-to-work” law, Pence’s attendance record in his six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and Gregg’s budget-balancing abilities when he was Speaker of the Indiana House a decade ago.
Gregg delivered the sharpest words when he painted himself as a moderate, bipartisan leader while calling Pence an “elite attack dog” of the Republican far-right.
“There is candidate Mike Pence and there is Congressman Mike Pence,” Gregg said, after accusing Pence of misrepresenting himself, his Congressional voting record and his likeness to current Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Tapping into a famous debate moment from the 1988 vice presidential debate when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen admonished Republican Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy,” Gregg said Pence was no Mitch Daniels. “Mitch Daniels shows up to work every day,” Gregg said.
Pence, whose early vow to run a “positive campaign” has meant little on-the-record criticism or even recognition of either of his opponents, pushed back. He said Gregg wasn’t sounding like the straight-talking politician he’s painted himself to be.
“You know I have 95 percent attendance rate in Congress,” Pence said before accusing Gregg of slip-sliding his way out of an earlier question about state budget deficits that occurred when Democrats were in charge of the House and the Governor’s office.
While both Pence and Gregg evoked bipartisanship as an ideal model to follow in the Statehouse, Boneham -- bearing a beard like the one he wore while as a cast member on the network television show “Survivor” -- called for “tri-partisanship” in the Statehouse.
Boneham won applause from an audience that had been admonished not to applaud when he described himself as the anti-candidate.
“I stand up here not as the career politician,” Boneham said. “I am not out to line my own pockets. I’m not out to gain fame and fortune.”
Boneham also prompted an unexpected exchange among the candidates when he said one of the most pressing problems facing Indiana was the high number of people caught in the criminal justice system and the lifelong punishment they face for committing a felony.
Pence responded by saying he wanted Indiana to be the “worst place in the nation to commit a serious crime,” before adding, “I want Indiana to be the best place in the nation -- after you’ve done your time -- to get a second chance.”
All three candidates wrapped up the debate, saying they’d be the best leader for the state. Gregg, who has been lagging behind in the polls, also put out an appeal to independent voters and people he called “Lugar Republicans,” referring to supporters of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost his GOP primary bid in May to Tea Party favorite, Richard Mourdock.
The three gubernatorial candidates will meet again next Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. The debate, in front of a live audience, will be televised at 7 pm EST.
CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief Maureen Hayden also contributed to this story. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org