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Weak tea: Last GOP governor debate before early voting a tepid affair

Five of the six Republican candidates for governor largely agreed on border issues during a Wednesday night debate in Tucson. While most of Arizona's GOP gubernatorial hopefuls have worked to attract right-wing Tea Party support, the discussion was neither strong nor heated.

The debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters at the West Campus of Pima Community College, was the last chance for the candidates to use a forum to woo voters before early ballots were mailed out Thursday. 

Sparring like old colleagues, the five candidates discussed immigration, the Affordable Care Act, and the state's budget deficit in front of an audience of about 120.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas started off the debate, which was moderated by AZPM's Lorraine Rivera.

"There is one issue that dwarfs all others and must be dealt with honestly," Thomas said. "If we do not secure our borders and stop illegal immigration before it's too late, this state will go broke."

Thomas, who resigned before an unsuccessful 2010 Attorney General race and was disbarred in 2012 because of his actions while in office, said he had worked with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and "stopped illegal immigration in Maricopa County."

Later, Christine Jones, a former GoDaddy executive, espoused her own plan, which uses the Yuma Sector as an example for the deployment of 1,200 state National Guard troops, the construction of new fencing, and new technologies. Jones has spent the last month promoting the plan around the state with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in tow.

Former U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who represented a California district in the 1990s, echoed Jones but made sure to note his own experience both in national office and as a police officer in presenting his own plan. Riggs said he has arrested illegal immigrants before and that he would "lead from the front to work on a coordinated local and federal response to secure the border."

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Thomas said that the border would be secure when it "eliminates 95 percent of illegal immigration" and his plan would include 3,000 national guard troops.

Scott Smith, a former mayor of Mesa, broke from the pack saying he would increase legal trade and legal immigration. His focus would be to fight organized crime.

"I will do everything in my legal power and the fiscal resources I have available to fight organized crime and insure public safety," Smith said. Smith, perceived as one of the more moderate candidates, also tiptoed up to immigration reform, saying, "We deal with impact of illegal immigration all day, but we also need to deal with a society in the shadows."

Secretary of State Ken Bennett argued that the deployment of National Guard troops would be an expense the state would not get back from the federal government. Bennett made this argument despite Jones' insistence that she would "be tenacious" in sending a bill for the estimated $270 million her plan would cost to Washington, D.C. Instead, Bennett said he would create a statewide task force to deal with the issue.

Jones said there were "interesting legal strategies" to get reimbursement that may be tried by Texas and South Dakota, but that ultimately the cost of new border security measures should come from the federal government. 

"Even if they don't pay it back, we cannot afford to do this anymore. Your money needs to be spent on keeping the state safe and secure," said Jones.

When Janet Napolitano was governor, she sent a bill for Guard border deployments to the feds. The state treasurer has yet to receive a check.

For much of the debate, candidates batted at each other with kid gloves. At one point Jones asked Riggs to name his favorite part of the state — perhaps a subtle way to point out that he's not a long-time Arizona resident, but an unusual move for a candidate who last year declared that Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio sets out water so that illegal immigrants don't die when they cross the Rio Grande.

However, Riggs returned with a barb focused on the only female candidate's time as a registered lobbyist for GoDaddy, noting that Jones has argued that the five men she's opposing represent 50 years of experience.

Jones shot back: "People in campaigns take money from lobbyists and they should give it back if they hate lobbyists so much."

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"Despite their experience there's a vacuum in leadership," said Jones, firing away at the other five candidates. "If you have such a great border plan, education plan or water plan, why are we just now hearing about it?"

Riggs said that unlike Jones he was "trusted, tested and vetted" for the state's highest office.

The candidates also took potshots at the absent candidate, state Treasurer Doug Ducey, who did not attend the debate due to what his campaign called a scheduling conflict.

Bennett spoke about ads that Ducey has run claiming the candidate would enforce security at the border using satellites. 

"As governor, I'll fight back with every resource at my command, fencing, satellites, guardsmen, more police and prosecutors," said Ducey in the campaign commercial.

"Some of the candidates are overestimating the ability of what the governor can actually do along the border," said Bennett to press after the debate. "Last time I checked the governor does not have satellites at their disposal."

During the debate, Smith also alluded that he and Jones wanted to ask a question of Ducey.

He started by lobbing what seemed like a loaded question at Bennett, "Ken, how important is integrity?" 

Bennett said it was the ultimate character trait and he worked very hard to maintain it. Smith thanked Bennett and said "Ken has shown integrity," but he alluded to one candidates who couldn't answer questions and wouldn't present their lives as an open book.

Smith looked at Jones and said that they both were hoping to get a follow-up answer from Ducey, but both demurred about what that question might be.

Jones said the softball questions were because after 50 debates, she was tired of all the attacks. She said that running for office meant that there was a "target on her back" and that she was worried that direct conflict could turn off voters.

A public poll by the Behavior Research Center released July 29 shows that 50 percent of Republican voters remain undecided just weeks before the election. Among independent voters interested in voting for a GOP candidate that gap widens to 51 percent, creating an unpredictable election season that could potentially break for any of the six candidates.

Jones would win the election according to the poll, but Ducey was only two points behind. Thomas and Riggs share the bottom spot, garnering only three percentage points between them.

A similar poll by Harper Polling in July showed the number of "not sure" voters at 22 percent, a number that has remained steady since June. The poll showed that Ducey is losing ground to Jones. In June, Ducey had 33 percent to Jones' 15 percent, however by mid-July, Ducey was at 23 percent and Jones garnered 21 percent.

Early ballots were mailed Thursday. The winner of the Aug. 26 Republican primary will face Democratic candidate Fred DuVal in November's general election.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Arizone Secretary of State Ken Bennett gives his opening remarks at the beginning of a debate among five of the Republican candidates for governor. From left to right, is Christine Jones, Frank Riggs, Scott Smith, and Andrew Thomas.