February 19, 2014 Updated: February 19, 2014 at 7:43 am
DENVER — Republican gubernatorial hopefuls agreed on taxes, civil unions and marijuana, but they disagreed on the woes of the state GOP in their first debate Tuesday.
The two front-runners — Secretary of State Scott Gessler and former congressman Tom Tancredo — declined to participate in the debate.
The four other candidates generally agreed on major issues, but they tried to distinguish themselves as the best candidate to take on Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in November.
Two of them who have held elected office — state Sen. Greg Brophy and former state Sen. Mike Kopp — highlighted their experience, while first-time candidates Jason Clark and Steve House described themselves as fresh voices that can appeal to anti-incumbent sentiment.
"I'm new. I'm young and very passionate," Clark said.
All four saved their sharpest barbs for Hickenlooper.
"Are you guys who are ready for a governor who will listen to you rather than the mayor of New York?" asked Brophy, a dig at Hickenlooper's support for gun-control measures also supported by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
All said they would end Hickenlooper's indefinite stay of execution for mass murderer Nathan Dunlap. Hickenlooper last year left open the possibility that a subsequent governor can set an execution date for Dunlap, who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.
Asked whether the gas tax or other taxes should be raised to pay for transportation projects, all four disagreed with the notion. They also said they wouldn't seek to prevent Colorado's constitutionally triggered tax rebates as required by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
Kopp said that schools are adequately funded and that the TABOR refunds shouldn't be redirected. "I think we can expect superior performance on that kind of money," he said.
The slate also agreed on marijuana, saying they personally opposed legalization. When asked whether they'd sign a repeal of Colorado's civil unions law, all four said no without elaborating.
Colorado's primary elections are June 24. The state GOP allows a maximum of three candidates to get on ballots through a statewide assembly, though more can petition themselves onto primary ballots, as some intend to do.
On the Democratic side, Hickenlooper has no opposition for the nomination.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released earlier this month found that voters were split on whether Hickenlooper deserves re-election. But voters preferred him by margins of six points or more against the Republicans vying for the chance to face him in November.
The Republicans who debated Tuesday chided Gessler and Tancredo for not participating. The front-runners have said primary debates would needlessly arm the Democrats, but the Republicans debating Tuesday argued that the GOP would be better off with a nominee who has faced tough questions.
Four years ago, Republicans nominated a first-time candidate, Dan Maes, who appeared unprepared in the general election.
"We can't wait until August to find out if our candidate can defend his record," Brophy said.
GOP gubernatorial debate: http://bit.ly/1oIPnOr