The gloves came off Wednesday as the four Republican candidates for governor squared off in a live debate on Kentucky Sports Radio.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin accused former Louisville Councilman Hal Heiner of dirty tricks, and listeners learned whether the candidates preferred University of Kentucky coach John Calipari or Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Tensions ran high as Comer tried to overcome an allegation that he assaulted his college girlfriend in the early 1990s.
Calling Heiner "the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics," Comer again accused Heiner's campaign of being behind a story that appeared in the Courier-Journal this week in which Marilyn Thomas, a woman Comer dated while they were both students at Western Kentucky University, alleged that Comer physically and mentally abused her.
Host Matt Jones asked Comer a series of pointed questions about the allegations, including, "Why would this woman and her mother make this up?"
Comer, who has denied the allegations, responded that he never called Thomas' mother, who told the Courier-Journal that Comer called her house at 2 a.m. one day in the early 1990s, threatening to kill Thomas.
When pressed on whether he thought Heiner was personally responsible for the allegation, Comer said: "I certainly hope not, but his campaign was."
When Jones asked Comer whether he planned to follow through with a threat to sue the newspaper, Comer said: "Yes, we have retained Frost Brown Todd and we are exploring every legal option." The newspaper has said that it stands behind the story.
Heiner said repeatedly that he had nothing to do with the story, saying, "Insinuating somehow we're behind this is totally and absolutely false, and it's not part of the campaign."
Jones asked Heiner why he didn't ask running mate KC Crosbie to resign after the Herald-Leader revealed that she and her husband had been in contact with Lexington blogger Michael Adams, who has long pushed the allegation that Comer abused Thomas.
Heiner said he was "totally unaware" of the contact between the Crosbies and Adams, and once he learned "that there had been some contact with the blogger, I addressed it."
"But I made it clear to my campaign staff: We've run a clean campaign for 61 weeks," Heiner said. "We have been directly on target talking about what's possible for the future of Kentucky."
Bevin, who for weeks has been furious at Heiner over attacks that have emanated from a super PAC run by Heiner's former campaign manager, said Heiner personally told him about the rumors about Comer "months and months ago."
"I don't know if he's behind the Comer story, but I'm telling you his people have been pushing this for a long time," Bevin said. "And Hal himself has personally told me months and months ago before I even got in this race, that he knew things, not had heard things, that he knew things based on conversations that his people had had about Jamie Comer. You told me that yourself, Hal. You told me in your office to my face.
"The reality is Hal Heiner is not who he pretends to be."
Heiner responded, "It's no surprise that ... I'm being attacked here by Matt Bevin. He's done nothing but attack for the last two years. Attack, attack, attack. He'll say anything to get elected."
Referring to Bevin's failed U.S. Senate race last year against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Heiner said Bevin is "just like Jack Conway: ran for Senate; now he's running for governor."
Jones asked the candidates whether the accusations against Comer disqualified him from being governor.
After recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott said that he "doesn't deal in yesterdays," Heiner said, "This is between Jamie Comer and the young lady, and our campaign will not address it."
Bevin was more supportive of Comer, telling Jones, "for all I've seen, it's allegation."
"It's uncorroborated or substantiated at this point," Bevin said. "I've never been a believer nor is America built on the premise that you ask people to be disqualified from things based on rumors and allegations. And so at this point, I don't think there's enough facts one way or the other to be able to make that determination."
But Bevin then said he does, "however, absolutely believe that Hal Heiner has surrounded himself with the surliest and sorriest group of people who have smeared and assassinated other people in this race."
In addition to the sharp elbows thrown over the allegations against Comer, the candidates traded paint on how or whether they would repeal Obamacare in Kentucky and support the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.
Heiner and Bevin also fought over whether Heiner was a supporter of doing away with Kynect, the Kentucky health insurance exchange set up under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Bevin accused Heiner of "flip-flopping," but Heiner said they simply have a difference of opinion.
"I am not willing to kick 330,000 people to the curb and destroy the health care system that's available in 75 percent of Kentucky today on a knee-jerk position you have taken," Heiner said.
For the folks who tuned in to hear about sports, Jones did ask the candidates who they would hire if they were an athletic director, Pitino or Calipari.
Both Heiner, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, and Bevin said they would pick Pitino.
Scott and Comer went with Calipari.
In a series of yes-or-no questions, all four candidates said they were opposed to same-sex marriage.
Scott, Heiner and Bevin all said they would support regulated medical marijuana, while Comer disagreed.
When asked whether they support casino gambling in Kentucky, Heiner, Bevin and Comer all said no, and Scott said yes.
Comer has previously testified in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling at Kentucky's racetracks.