DENVER - Republican candidates for governor present a united front heading into the June primary, keeping a live television debate friendly Sunday and focusing criticism on Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
So far, six candidates are working to get their names on the June 24 primary ballot for a shot at unseating Hickenlooper in November. A seventh candidate - former Congressman Bob Beauprez - is expected to enter the race Monday.
Candidate Jason Clark pulled out of the race Sunday, throwing his support behind Beauprez and urging others to do the same.
"Bob Beauprez is clearly the only GOP candidate that can be a formidable competitive choice," Clark wrote on his Facebook page.
Still in the running are state Sen. Greg Brophy, a farmer from Wray; Secretary of State Scott Gessler; Steve House, a businessman from Brighton; and former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo declined to participate in the debate and neither Roni Bell Sylvester nor Clark was invited.
Even after a divisive Republican primary in 2010, the crowd of hopeful conservatives didn't resort to flinging mud.
Brophy, Gessler, House and Kopp seemed equally dedicated to improving the economy, growing small businesses, executing the three prisoners on Colorado's death row, cutting through government red tape and reducing spending on "entitlement" programs which generally include forms of public assistance, such as welfare programs.
Brophy said he would sign papers to have death row inmate Nathan Dunlap executed in his first 90 days. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve from execution.
The four candidates who participated in the 90-minute debate Sunday on FOX31 Denver criticized Hickenlooper for the economy and social issues, such as gun control.
Hickenlooper frequently emphasizes the economic growth and improvement that has occurred under his watch, particularly when it comes to job growth.
"The economy is not on the right track," Gessler said. "Colorado has some of the worst unemployment in the entire region."
He said booming states such as Texas and Utah are "eating our lunch," and he would champion a low tax and a favorable regulatory environment.
According to unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado's unemployment rate is higher than every neighboring state except New Mexico and Arizona.
Brophy said funding for education has decreased 2 percent statewide while funding for entitlement programs has increased 67 percent. Brophy wasn't available for comment on the statistics, and further details were not available.
Kopp and House were asked what their budget would look like in the next fiscal year when state revenue is expected to reach an all-time high.
House said he would actually like to reduce expenditures despite increasing revenues.
"The reality of it is we're not growing fast enough to take care of the entitlements that we've taken on socially, like the Medicaid expansion," House said.
"There are plenty of areas in our budget where we can be quite more efficient."
Kopp said he'd return the money to taxpayers. A provision of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights requires excess revenue to be returned to taxpayers in good economic times.
Kopp asked Gessler about not attending The Denver Post debate in February and a quote in The Gazette that insulted the other candidates.
Gessler said his campaign manager was misquoted in The Gazette.
"I didn't attack the candidates and you all are my friends," he said.
The Gazette stands behind the quote as it was reported.
So why the Kumbaya mentality in this debate?
Melissa Kuipers, policy adviser with the Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, speculated the GOP is feeling a renewed sense of unity, partly due to the decision of Rep. Cory Gardner to enter the U.S. Senate race.
"Everyone finally feels the spirit of the potential for some large victories here," Kuipers said.
"Over the past several years both in president and statewide races, Republicans have learned that beating each other up in the primary can be destructive, so that they are no longer viable candidates."
Kuipers watched the debate Sunday and said House came across as particularly strong.
"He's been a welcome addition, incredibly impressive and someone who shows the depth of the Republican bench," Kuipers said.
House stressed himself as a businessman first not a politician. He has never held political office although he is the chair of the Adams County Republican Party.
Contact Megan Schrader