DALLAS — The three Republican candidates for governor clashed in a spirited final televised debate Friday night, sharpening their differences over a wide range of issues from immigration to jobs and transportation as they jockeyed for advantage going into the March 2 primary.
The opening minutes set the tone for the hourlong debate as Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the leading contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, sharply disagreed over whether Texas employers should be required to use an electronic screening program to verify the citizenship of employees.
Hutchison said the system, known as E-Verify, could provide a useful tool, while Perry said "it would not make a hill of beans’ difference in what’s happening today."
Conservative activist Debra Medina, the third candidate in the race, again assailed the front-runners, echoing one of her themes from the first debate. "We’ve had squabbling back and forth between these two and no leadership," she asserted.
Hutchison at times formed a tag team with Medina to gang up on Perry, who held a 10-point lead over Hutchison in a recent Rasumussen poll.
Hutchison’s goal for the debate was to exploit any openings that would enable her to close the gap and overtake Perry heading into the March primary.
Under repeated questioning, Hutchison also clarified her position on abortion, saying she doesn’t believe the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion should be overturned but stressing that she has pressed for restrictions on abortions and has a 94 percent rating from the national right-to-life community. In the initial debate, Hutchison expressed fears that "abortion havens" would spring up nationwide if the 1973 abortion decision were overturned.
"I’m a person who reveres life, and we should go the extra distance to revere life," Hutchison said.
Perry defended one of the hallmarks of his administration — the job-creating Texas Enterprise Fund — after a scathing report this week that the fund had not lived up to expectations. On Tuesday, Perry’s office disclosed that Enterprise Fund contracts with Bank of America and Gulfstream were terminated and that goals and deadlines were eased on 11 others.
"You’re absolutely wrong that this is a program with a checkered past," the governor said in response to a panelist’s characterization.
But Hutchison, who has called for an audit of the program, suggested that she would seriously retool or possibly abolish the fund "as it is being run by the governor’s office." She said that millions of dollars channeled through the fund could have been better spent on education.
The debate, sponsored by the Belo Corp. and held at the WFAA/Channel 8 studio in Dallas, gave Perry and Hutchison a statewide forum to showcase their messages in a multimillion-dollar political clash that began taking shape more than a year ago.
Medina, a Houston-area businesswoman who espouses a libertarian-style message that includes the elimination of property taxes, hoped to firmly establish herself as a serious alternative to the leading candidates after a successful performance in the first debate.
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