In a staccato debate of brief answers and sharp criticisms, the top three Republican candidates for governor squared off in a debate Friday for the first time this primary season, only four days before ballots are due.
Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, former Navy pilot Greg Wooldridge and Bend businessman Sam Carpenter responded hastily to questions from conservative radio host Lars Larson, touching on subjects including illegal immigration, tax policy and forest management.
All three made the case as to why they were the best — nay, only — shot Republicans have to defeat Gov. Kate Brown in November and break the three-decade stranglehold Democrats have had on the governor's office.
Their pitches varied: Buehler relied on his legislative experience and more-moderate track record; Wooldridge said he is a "pragmatic conservative" with the right demeanor and leadership experience to guide the state; Carpenter described himself as a Trump conservative who will be able to rally the Republican base needed for victory.
"The beautiful ship of Oregon is up on the rocks," Wooldridge said. "It's got holes in the bow, we're taking on water. Four more years, the ship's going to sink. We've got to get a new captain."
Watch: Wooldridge on Straight Talk
Predictably, the candidates didn't seem to care much for their opponents' spiels.
"If we don’t have a conservative running against Kate Brown, we’re going to lose again,” Carpenter said.
"Who has a proven track record for supporting limited government, for lowering taxes and protecting small businesses and the Second Amendment? Greg and Sam can talk about it, I've done it," Buehler said.
Buehler and Carpenter were responsible for much of the cross-talk during the hour-long KXL radio debate in Portland. Spending by Buehler's campaign over the past month suggests to analysts the race is closer than Buehler expected, and recent polling gives Buehler a single-digit lead over Carpenter.
When asked if they would support the eventual Republican nominee whomever it is, Wooldridge and Carpenter both answered in the affirmative. Buehler, meanwhile, said he would support Wooldridge, but "the jury is still out" on Carpenter because of "too many open questions" about his background.
Carpenter was a frequent target, continuing a weeks-long trend by Buehler and Wooldridge.
Buehler launched an ad campaign in April highlighting Carpenter's past delinquent tax payments, and Wooldridge alleged in an advertisement that Carpenter lied about being accepted into the Army special forces.
Carpenter was given the opportunity to strike back.
"You (Buehler) have mischaracterized me with a million dollars over the last three weeks," Carpenter said. "Everything you've said has been either a distortion or a complete lie. And Greg you've done the same thing. How come you guys are ganging up on me? What's the problem?"
"Because you have a problem with telling the truth," Buehler interjected.
The Republicans did fall on the same side on many of the issues, including: ending the state's sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants, taking a more-active role in suppressing wildfires, fixing the state's public education system, changing the structure of the Public Employees Retirement System, and pledging not to raise taxes.
Voters have until 8 p.m. May 15 to file ballots. The Secretary of State recommends not mailing ballots anymore, but dropping them off to ensure they arrive at counting locations on time.
Races to Watch: Oregon 2018 Primaries
As of Friday morning, turnout was at only 16.1 percent, according to the Secretary of State's office.
In an immediate consequence from the debate, the Oregon Firearms Federation downgraded its rating of Carpenter from a B+ to an F after Carpenter said he, as governor, would enforce Initiative Petition 43 if it passed.
Wooldridge and Buehler both said they would not enforce the initiative, which would restrict the sale, production and ownership of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
B+ is the highest grade a candidate without a voting record can receive from the federation. Wooldridge received a B, Buehler an F.
Carpenter made it clear that he does not support the initiative, but needed to get in the governor's office to see how things worked and would follow the law.
"I need to get in the machinery. I'm going to dodge the question, if you want to call it that," Carpenter said.
"Hey Lars, I won't dodge that question," Buehler cut in. "I won't enforce that law. It's unconstitutional."
When pressed with a follow-up question, Carpenter said: "As governor, I'm going to enforce the law, whatever it is...It's my job to enforce the law. I will do what I can to prevent bad laws from happening."
Watch: Carpenter on Straight Talk
Wooldridge also took the opportunity to separate himself on the issue.
"I would not enforce that law," Wooldridge said. "Good leaders have the courage to stand alone, and the courage to go against things that are just not right."
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